Chicago's two-fisted street cops have a new kind of backup: a point-and-click surveillance network tied to a citywide crime-fighting database. (Smile for the camera.)
Wired News | May 9, 2005
By Noah Shachtman
On a warm afternoon on Chicago's West Side, a young African-American man leans against the wall of the One Stop Food and Liquor store at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Homan Street. His puffy black jacket is so oversize that the collar hangs halfway down his back. Thirty feet up, a camera mounted on a telephone poll swivels toward him.
Three miles away, in a bunkerlike, red granite building near Greektown, Ron Huberman watches the young man on a PC screen. "You see that guy?" asks Huberman, the 33-year-old chief of Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications. "He's pitching dope - you can tell. Fucker."
The corner of Chicago and Homan used to be a haven for dealers slinging heroin and rock cocaine, the heart of a gangbanger free-fire zone. In 2003, the Windy City had 598 homicides, making it the country's murder capital.
"We've gotta figure out where's he keeping the goods," says Huberman, his voice breaking from a bout with the flu. "We're gonna go on the air" - call for a police car - "and bust him."
With a move of his mouse, Huberman pans to the right. We're looking down at a second man, in a beige coat. He has a brown paper bag in one hand and a wad of cash in the other. "He's involved," Huberman says, staring hard at the screen. No cop, even undercover, could ever get this close for this long. But the cameras - housed in checkerboard-patterned, 2-foot-tall boxes the police here call pods - can zoom in so tight I can see the wisps of a mustache. Huberman decides not to have his suspected dealers picked up; too much of an Enemy of the State move to pull with a reporter around, perhaps. But the footage will be stored for review by antinarcotics teams. "Now you see the power of what we're doing?" Huberman asks, still staring at the screen.
IT has been key to crime-fighting since patrol cars got radios in the 1920s. A couple of decades ago, London started installing surveillance cameras. In the 1990s, New York began crunching crime statistics and produced a near-miraculous improvement in public safety. By comparison, Chicago was a Cretaceous backwater.
But Chicago has evolved. A pilot network of 30 cameras keeps watch over the West Side, capturing images that have been used in more than 200 investigations. It's the first step on the way to a 2,250-camera system. And the electronic eyes are merely the most visible part of a strategy to completely remake police work in Chicago. A massive set of databases now collects and collates the minutiae of law enforcement - everything from mug shots to chains of evidence. Installed in patrol cars, it turns every PC in every station house into a node on a crime-fighting network. At headquarters, superintendents and commanders use it to pore over patterns of criminal behavior, figuring out how to deploy swarms of cops. Today, the murder rate is at its lowest point since the mid-'60s.
By embracing the cameras, the network, and this immensely powerful database, Chicago's once-creaky police force has become an inspiration for departments around the country looking to get spry. "There has never been another comprehensive program like this in a major police department," says Northwestern University political scientist Susan Hartnett, who's been studying the CPD for more than a decade. Whether it means the end of crime or the beginning of the surveillance state - or both - Chicago is building the future of law enforcement.
Officer Dave Dombkowski spent 13 years on the streets of Chicago before he went to work for Huberman. Today he's staring at the face of a thug on the screen of his gunmetal-gray laptop.
We're looking at a local street gang leader busted 16 times since 1996 - for heroin, DUIs, sex abuse, murder. We know all that because of a network of databases called Clear - Citizen Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting. Clear lets Dombkowski tab through every mug shot, every alias, every scar. Give Clear a partial address, a nickname, a description of that tattoo on your perp's right arm, and it will track him down - even bring up his picture, for proof. The old databases would cough up information only if suspects gave their real names to the arresting officers, which happened about as often as the Cubs win the World Series. When Dombkowski was a patrol officer, he would trick people into the truth, telling them that the computer in his car was actually a new-jack polygraph, a "lie box" that could sort out fact from bullshit. But with Clear in his car, there's no more lying to Officer Dombkowski. No more tricks. "This is the real lie box," he says. "We can tell who you are."
Online rap sheets are really just a sliver of what Clear knows. In the station houses and at police headquarters, the database has become a kind of central nervous system for Chicago crime-fighters. It tracks all 466,000 pieces of CPD evidence, from recovered cigarette butts to confiscated drugs. But perhaps most important, it makes clear - and even predicts - patterns in the timing and geography of criminal behavior. That lets CPD chiefs know where to hang cameras. And it tells commanders like Jim Keating where to send troops.
A 25-year veteran - old-school enough to call police "coppers" - Keating heads up the department's Targeted Response Unit, a squad of 240 of Chicago's most amped-up officers assigned to the most crime-ridden neighborhoods of the city. It's not a stretch to call TRU the system's fist.
On his PC, Keating calls up Clear and shows me his hunting grounds. It's a map of the 25th District, near the city's northwest border. Every crime in the 25th from the past month is marked with an icon - black masks for robberies, orange bodies for homicides, blue guns for aggravated batteries with firearms. "Before, it would take six to eight months to develop a set of contacts in your district. And we had to rely on the detectives to put together the patterns," Keating says. "Now, it's click, click, click, and we have it all citywide." The 25th's map is dotted with a half-dozen blue guns, six black masks, and two orange corpses. Keating sends one of his guys to get me a Kevlar vest; we're going to the 25th tonight.
Sitting next to me in the back of a patrol car buzzing down North Avenue, Officer Danielle Philp - she goes by Nicky - is hoping, begging, for someone to do something wrong and give her a little action. "We're out here hunting, hunting all the time," she says, adjusting her red ponytail as we fly past the Planet Earth African Hair Braiding Salon and the Ea$y Ca$h stand. Kerry DeLisle, with deep dimples and a devilish smile, has the wheel. Their sergeant calls them the Evil Stepsisters. Another officer, Everardo Bracamontes, rides copilot.
When I tell them I'm writing a story about police technology, the Stepsisters laugh. "Oh yeah," Philp says, "we're soooo advanced." Clear is cool, sure - if you're back in the station house. Right now, only about 50 patrol cars have it, and this isn't one of them. That's slated to change when Verizon switches on its high-speed cellular network, unleashing enough bandwidth to connect thousands more. Meanwhile, the Panasonic Toughbook laptop mounted in between the two front seats looks like it would choke on Windows 3.1. It takes only a couple of hours out on patrol to see how badly they need an upgrade.
The night starts out quiet. They bawl out a teenager for pissing behind a KFC. They pull over a gray Cadillac for running a red light (or maybe it was a yellow). Then, as they search a silver Dodge Magnum station wagon, the call comes. "Nick! Robbery on Cicero!" DeLisle screams as Philp hustles back into the car.
Bracamontes hits the lights. Sirens blare. Cutting past an SUV, DeLisle yanks the wheel hard to the right, sending me thumping into Philp. The radio says to be on the lookout for a carjacked green Intrepid, headed north. As they hit Cicero Avenue, they see the vehicle - maybe. But it's going south. And it's gray, not green. If they had Clear in their squad car, they might have been able to get updates on the Intrepid's description or run its plates. Bracamontes yells that it's the wrong car, but DeLisle follows anyway, cursing. "Move!" she yells at an ambulance puttering in front of us. "We move for you all the time! Now get out of our way!"
The Intrepid spins right, now heading west on Chicago Avenue. A half-dozen other police cars have joined the chase, and they pin the Intrepid in at Kilbourn Avenue. Officers pile out, guns drawn. For a moment, everything is quiet. If there were a pod camera nearby, the cops back in Huberman's headquarters could get a look at the man behind the wheel or run the license plate number. But there isn't. "I knew this wasn't it," Bracamontes mutters.
But then the Intrepid takes off - plowing over an officer and, we hear later, snapping his leg. Two blocks further on, in front of a town house, we come upon the Intrepid, empty. He's on the run, but the place is already swarming with badges. The Stepsisters take that as their cue to leave. When they get Clear in their car, they'll be able to submit paperwork on the chase and the rundown from their laptop - but if they stay tonight, they'll spend the rest of the shift at the station house, filling out reports.
Not that they manage to avoid some paperwork. In the 25th District's dingy, fluorescent-lit station house, Bracamontes uses two fingers to try to enter an arrest report into Clear. He can't quite swing it. "Hey, man," he says in a half-whisper to another cop, "got any paper?"
Clear was born out of anger and frustration. Chicago had been trying to upgrade its computer network for most of the 1990s, in timid fits and starts. A 1999 rollout of an automated case reporting application went so badly that a detectives' newsletter warned the IT guys to watch their backs on the street. So the CPD decided to start from scratch with a database for arrest reports and case histories. As the system began to take shape in 2000, Ron Huberman returned to the department from a stint with a think tank in Washington, DC. Just 28 years old, with a crew cut and cordwood arms, he had already spent four years as a beat cop and gang specialist in Rogers Park, working nights while studying for dual master's degrees - in business administration and public policy - during the day. Coming back to Chicago, Huberman had a kind of epiphany. All of the department's district houses had already been linked in a 500-mile fiber-optic network, thanks to 1980s and 1990s investments. New York was already making statistics-based policing famous with its CompStat system. But in New York, information flowed only one way, up to the chiefs and the crime analysts, who then ran the numbers and sent reports and data out to the rest of the city. Huberman believed that fiber could help the police figure out who the real crooks were. Information could gush in every direction, linking systems from investigations to evidence tracking to personnel management to community involvement. Oracle bought into the idea, contributing $20 million in time, software, and hardware. The eventual result was Clear.
In 2003, Huberman - by then an assistant deputy superintendent - started Operation Disruption, a pilot program to string 30 surveillance cameras along the West Side. The idea was simply to put the silent sentries up on telephone poles, to let the bad guys know they weren't invisible anymore. During its first seven months, drug-related calls to the police in those neighborhoods went down 76 percent; serious crimes dropped by 17 percent. It's hard to tie correlation to cause, but the broad anticrime strategy - surveillance cameras, real-time data updates, and smarter deployment of tactical police units - seems to have helped bring down the body count. The city had 445 killings last year, a 25 percent drop from 2003. "This is about restoring a sense of order, about taking streets from the gangbangers," Huberman says.
Police departments often tout the latest toys and gadgets as the way to win the war on crime. Usually these programs are tepid solutions to systemic problems. Or they're great ideas too narrowly deployed. But what's happening in Chicago is different. No police force this size has ever gone this digital. No major department has ever connected so many street cops to so much information, or backed them up with a vast network of cameras.
Now the Chicago model is spreading. Nearly 300 local law enforcement agencies in 35 Illinois counties have tapped into Clear. So have agents from the FBI, Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Officials from the LAPD have been to Chicago to study the system; the mayor of San Francisco cited Chicago when he touted networked surveillance cameras for his city's most dangerous neighborhoods. In Washington, DC, police department tech czar Phil Graham is designing a regional data hub that he says is "absolutely inspired by Clear."
All that support has fueled Huberman's next big idea: Expand the panopticon even further, to include more than 2,000 private and public surveillance cameras around Chicago. Huberman has snared $34 million from the Department of Homeland Security, and another $5 million from the city, to put 250 more cameras downtown and link them to Chicago's emergency center through the city's fiber backbone.
In other surveillance cities, like London, squads of monitor jockeys have to make sense of confusing, overlapping video feeds. Huberman plans to make all that observation more focused. Every day, his 911 emergency hotline gets 18,000 calls; once the cameras get linked, every 911 call will turn on the nearest camera, showing dispatchers the scene in real time.
Funded with $3.5 million from local drug busts, the next wave of pod cameras will have audio sensors that listen for gunshots (and distinguish between them and similar noises, like the pop of a firecracker). Software will scan the video feeds for suspicious behavior. Come too close to a restricted government building, leave a package on an El platform, or even hang out for too long on a ghetto street corner and - smile - you're on Criminal Camera.
All this technology has some longtime Chicago community activists squirming. History has provided several reasons to mistrust the police. Former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley's notorious Red Squad snooped on such groups as the League of Women Voters and the American Jewish Congress, and kept files on 200,000 Chicagoans. The unit was officially disbanded in 1981, but in 2002, the police infiltrated five antiglobalization protest groups and then undertook four more unspecified "spying operations" a year later, according to the Chicago Tribune . Reports of corruption on the force are still all too common. "It's almost inevitable, considering the nature of the Chicago police, that we're going to hear about abuses regarding this technology," says Representative Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther who has represented the South Side in Congress for 13 years.
For years, the CPD's solution to street crime was to clear the sidewalks. A controversial 1992 anti-loitering law allowed police to arrest entire groups of people if just one of them was a known gang member. The US Supreme Court struck down the law in 1999 as a violation of the right to free assembly. Critics worry that the cameras and tactical units are more of the same - and see in other cities evidence to support their fears. In New Orleans, for instance, surveillance cameras were originally envisioned as witnesses that couldn't be intimidated. The problem, critics say, is that the cameras make the streets so unfriendly that no one feels comfortable leaving the house, whether they're planning to break the law or not. One inarguable effect, says NOPD detective Mike Carambat: "You put one of these cameras up and these thugs, they scatter like roaches in the spotlight."
Critics also note that surveillance cameras seem to get pointed at certain minority groups. One Hull University study found that "nine out of ten targeted surveillances were on men, particularly if they were young and black." Another discovered that blacks were twice as likely as whites "to be surveilled for no apparent reason." Paul Jakes Jr., a reverend whose Old Saint Paul Missionary Baptist Church is not far from where Chicago's first surveillance camera was mounted, says the pods are another way to turn his neighbors into suspects. "They have criminalized the whole community," thunders Jakes, who ran for mayor in 2003, partially on a platform of keeping the cops in check.
Yet not every community leader agrees with Rush and Jakes. "People are asking for these cameras; there's not enough to go around," says Ed Smith, an alderman on the West Side. "Look, I'd love to live in a community filled with elegance, opulence, and complete serenity. But that's not the case. So we have to do what we have to do in order to keep our citizens safe."
That's pretty much the city hall line, too. Richard M. Daley, who won a fifth term in 2003 by defeating Jakes with 79 percent of the vote, had a simple, unapologetic message when he introduced the gunshot-sensing cameras last year. He stood up at a press conference and said: "We own the street."
Back in the Emergency Management Center, Sergeant Greg Hoffman is watching a pair of suspicious fortysomethings on a 10-foot wall of video monitors. From a half-block away, the sergeant sees one deal go down. And then another. "Maybe they really need the money," Hoffman later muses. "Maybe they think that we can't see from this far away." Whatever. He calls in a local antidrug team, which recovers 14 tiny tinfoil packets of heroin. "When we locked 'em up," Hoffman says, "we told 'em: We can see you. We are watching. Let the people know."
The 'Clear' Way to Fight Crime
Scrutinize: Chicago's pilot network of 30 cameras, soon to be expanded to more than 2,000, will also sense gunfire and zoom in on trouble in response to 911 calls.
Analyze: This year, patrol cars will be hooked into a database that connects officers to rap sheets, evidence logs, mug shots, and real-time updates.
Mobilize: The same database collects crime statistics and parses geographic patterns, so police know where to deploy members of the Targeted Response Unit.