Chicago To Be Watched by CCTV

Mayor Richard Daley on Thursday announced a major expansion of the city's video surveillance system, adding 250 cameras and tying more than 2,000 existing cameras used by the city, Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Housing Authority and other local governmental agencies to the city's 911 center.

Private-sector companies also will be able to opt into the system, linking their security devices to the center as well.

In what officials said is expected to be the most extensive operation of its kind in the world, dispatchers will be able to see real-time images when emergencies are reported so they can direct police officers, firefighters and paramedics to where help is needed.

And special software will flag suspicious activity, calling up the scene on video monitors when packages are left in public places, for example, or when a person falls to the ground.

"Cameras are the equivalent of hundreds of sets of eyes," Daley said. "They're the next best thing to having police officers stationed at every potential trouble spot. They also serve as a deterrent to crime, and they provide evidence that is admissible in court."

Because the cameras owned by the city and sister agencies are focused on public places, there will be no invasion of privacy, Daley said.

"We own the sidewalk," the mayor told reporters at a news conference at the 911 center. "We own the street, and we own the alley. ... You could photograph me going down the street. You do it every day. You have that right."

There are no constitutional issues if the spots that will be monitored are, in fact, public places or private places where owners have consented, said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Yohnka cited a 2003 ACLU report that concluded that a "dark potential" lurks in the national proliferation of monitoring systems.

"If we do not take steps to control and regulate surveillance to bring it into conformity with our values, we will find ourselves being tracked, analyzed, profiled and flagged in our daily lives to a degree we can scarcely imagine today," it said. "We will be forced to constantly ask of even the smallest action taken in public, 'Will this make me look suspicious? Will this hurt my chances for future employment? Will this reduce my ability to get insurance?'"

Yohnka also questioned the effectiveness of cameras, saying they have not reduced crime in London, where they have been used for years.

They "pushed crime to areas where cameras didn't exist," he said. "It is a question of effectiveness."

But Police Supt. Philip Cline said that 30 steel-encased cameras installed last year on light poles, most of them in a drug-infested area of the West Side, have had an obvious effect.

"We have seen a reduction in crime in the area where the [cameras] are located and about a 75 percent reduction in calls for service about selling narcotics," he said. "So it has moved the drug dealers, but we haven't seen an increase in the surrounding areas."

Daley said that "as word of the camera network gets around, it should make potential lawbreakers think twice before they commit a crime."

The first of the 250 new city cameras are expected to be installed in November of next year, and the new system is scheduled to come on line in the spring of 2006. The cameras will be placed "on critical infrastructure and at high-risk areas around the city," particularly downtown, Daley said.

The initiative will be funded by a $5.1 million federal homeland security grant, officials said.

"We did extensive research to determine what works and what doesn't work across the world in putting our strategy together," said Ron Huberman, executive director of the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

City representatives "visited the London surveillance center. We looked at the way Las Vegas casinos do monitoring. We looked at the way the Department of Defense does surveillance both in combat situations and other surveillance strategies to determine what would make the most sense for the city."

Under the city's plan, if someone dialed 911 from a platform on the CTA's Blue Line, for example, "the system automatically will scan all of the cameras to determine if a camera is nearby," Huberman said. "When the system determines there is a camera in the vicinity of the call, it automatically will beam back an image to the call taker."

The call taker, viewing the scene, will be able to provide instructions and assistance to the victim and provide exact information to police that could include a description of suspects who still may be in camera view.

In a separate part of the 911 center, now under construction, operators will view video screens being fed by cameras throughout the city. Software will be used to determine possibly suspicious behavior, sending the video feed to a screen and sounding an audible alert, officials said.

If someone walking down a monitored stairway leaves behind a bag, if a person is spotted in a restricted area such as the grounds of a water filtration plant or the airfield at Midway Airport, the scene automatically will appear on the screen, officials said.

If two people walking from opposite directions suddenly go together in the same direction, the scene will be flagged for a look.

"This may be a totally normal occurrence, but what it allows us to do is bring up this image for the operator [to see] if there is anything suspicious, anything problematic," Huberman said. "Was someone being dragged away from where they were walking? You can imagine the implications at night in alleys and other locations."

"Erratic behavior," such as a person walking around in circles, also will trigger a look by an operator.

The software "is programmable," Huberman said. "We will determine what is the appropriate threshold to set for an alarm to go off."

Asked how he believes citizens will react, Daley replied, "They will love it. They love the cameras now. If you live in those areas [on the West Side] where those drugs and gangbangers are, they love it. This is part and parcel of policing."

The system also will be used to monitor situations unrelated to crime.

For example, Huberman said the system will flag problems on roads in the city where cameras are installed, allowing help to be sent if there is an accident or an obstruction that slows traffic.

Owners of private buildings with security cameras who choose to connect to the system will be charged fees that have not yet been determined, officials said.

In a similar but unrelated development, Cook County is using $34 million in homeland security money to install a system that will give police and other public safety officers in more than 120 municipalities new video surveillance and communications capabilities.

Officers will be able to view scenes captured by government-owned cameras mounted on poles and traffic lights, and in police cars and firetrucks.