Chicago Moving to 'Smart' Surveillance Cameras
By Stephen Kinzer, New York Times
Chicago - A highly advanced system of video surveillance that Chicago officials plan to install by 2006 will make people here some of the most closely observed in the world. Mayor Richard M. Daley says it will also make them much safer.
"Cameras are the equivalent of hundreds of sets of eyes," Mr. Daley said when he unveiled the new project this month. "They''re the next best thing to having police officers stationed at every potential trouble spot."
Police specialists here can already monitor live footage from about 2,000 surveillance cameras around the city, so the addition of 250 cameras under the mayor''s new plan is not a great jump. The way these cameras will be used, however, is an extraordinary technological leap.
Sophisticated new computer programs will immediately alert the police whenever anyone viewed by any of the cameras placed at buildings and other structures considered terrorist targets wanders aimlessly in circles, lingers outside a public building, pulls a car onto the shoulder of a highway, or leaves a package and walks away from it. Images of those people will be highlighted in color at the city''s central monitoring station, allowing dispatchers to send police officers to the scene immediately.
Officials here designed the system after studying the video surveillance network in London, which became a world leader in this technology during the period when Irish terrorists were active. The Chicago officials also studied systems used in Las Vegas casinos, as well as those used by Army combat units. The system they have devised, they say, will be the most sophisticated in the United States and perhaps the world.
"What we''re doing is a totally new concept," said Ron Huberman, executive director of the city''s office of emergency management and communications. "This is a very innovative way to harness the power of cameras. It''s going to take us to a whole new level."
Many cities have installed large numbers of surveillance cameras along streets and near important buildings, but as the number of these cameras has grown, it has become impossible to monitor all of them. The software that will be central to Chicago''s surveillance system is designed to direct specialists to screens that show anything unusual happening.
Mr. Huberman, a 32-year-old former police officer who is also what one aide called "a techno geek," said this new system "should produce a significant decrease in crime, and from a homeland security standpoint it should be able to make our city safer."
When the system is in place, Mr. Huberman said, video images will be instantly available to dispatchers at the city''s 911 emergency center, which receives about 18,000 calls each day. Dispatchers will be able to tilt or zoom the cameras, some of which magnify images up to 400 times, in order to watch suspicious people and follow them from one camera''s range to another''s.
A spokesman for the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Edwin C. Yohnka, said the new system was "really a huge expansion of the city''s surveillance program."
"With the aggressive way these types of surveillance equipment are being marketed and implemented," Mr. Yohnka said, "it really does raise questions about what kind of society do we ultimately want, and how intrusive we want law enforcement officials to be in all of our lives."
The surveillance network will embrace cameras placed not only by the police department, but also by a variety of city agencies including the transit, housing and aviation authorities. Private companies that maintain their own surveillance of areas around their buildings will also be able to send their video feeds to the central control room that is being built at a fortified city building.
The 250 new cameras, along with the new system dispatchers will use to monitor them, are to be in place by the spring of 2006. A $5.1 million federal grant will be used to pay for the cameras, and the city will add $3.5 million to pay for the computer network that will connect them.
This project is a central part of Chicago''s response to the threat of terrorism, as well as an effort to reduce the city''s crime rate. It also subjects people here to extraordinary levels of surveillance. Anyone walking in public is liable to be almost constantly watched.
"The value we gain in public safety far outweighs any perception by the community that this is Big Brother who''s watching," Mr. Huberman said. "The feedback we''re getting is that people welcome this. It makes them feel safer."
One community organizer who works in a high-crime neighborhood, Ernest R. Jenkins, chairman of the West Side Association for Community Action, said the 2,000 cameras now in place had reduced crime and were "having an impact, no if''s, and''s or but''s about it." Nonetheless, Mr. Jenkins said, some people in Chicago believed the city was trying to "infiltrate people''s privacy in the name of terrorist attacks."
"I just personally think that it''s an invasion of people''s privacy," Mr. Jenkins said of the new video surveillance project. "A large increase in the utilization of these cameras would oversaturate the market."
City officials counter that the cameras will monitor only public spaces. Rather than curb the system''s future expansion, they have raised the possibility of placing cameras in commuter and rapid transit cars and on the city''s street-sweeping vehicles.
"We''re not inside your home or your business," Mayor Daley said. "The city owns the sidewalks. We own the streets and we own the alleys."