CHICAGO — At first glance, Chicago’s latest crime-fighting strategy seems to be plucked from a Hollywood screenplay. Someone sees a thief dipping into a Salvation Army kettle in a crowd of shoppers on State Street and dials 911 from a cellphone. Within seconds, a video image of the caller’s location is beamed onto a dispatcher’s computer screen. An officer arrives and by police radio is directed to the suspect, whose description and precise location are conveyed by the dispatcher watching the video, leading to a quick arrest.
That chain of events actually happened in the Loop in December, said Ray Orozco, the executive director of the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
“We can now immediately take a look at the crime scene if the 911 caller is in a location within 150 feet of one of our surveillance cameras, even before the first responders arrive,” Mr. Orozco said.
The technology, a computer-aided dispatch system, was paid for with a $6 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security. It has been in use since a trial run in December. “One of the best tools any big city can have is visual indicators like cameras, which can help save lives,” Mr. Orozco said.
In addition to the city’s camera network, Mr. Orozco said, the new system can also connect to cameras at private sites like tourist attractions, office buildings and university campuses.
Twenty private companies have agreed to take part in the program, a spokeswoman for Mr. Orozco said, and 17 more are expected to be added soon. Citing security concerns, the city would not say how many cameras were in the system.
Mayor Richard M. Daley said this week that the integrated camera network would enhance regional security as well as fight street crime.
Still, opponents of Mr. Daley’s use of public surveillance cameras described the new system as a potential Big Brother intrusion on privacy rights.
“If a 911 caller reports that someone left a backpack on the sidewalk, will the camera image of someone who appears to be of Arab or South Asian descent make police decide that person is suspicious?” asked Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
“There seems to be this incredibly voracious appetite on the part of the city to link up cameras to the 911 system,” Mr. Yohnka said. “But there are just no longitudinal statistics that prove that surveillance cameras reduce crime. They just displace crime.”
Some experts, including Albert Alschuler, a law professor at Northwestern University, say the surveillance cameras and updated 911 system do not violate privacy rights because the cameras are installed in public locations.
“In America, we protest the use of cameras for things like enforcing laws that reduce crime or traffic accidents, but we probably ought to do more,” Mr. Alschuler said.
He added: “My more serious concern would be if they start using new audio technologies, which can be calibrated to alert police to loud noises, like a scream or a car crash. What worries me is if police can use technology to listen to anyone who happens to be talking in a public location, which would raise serious privacy concerns.”
from the Times