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Surveillance Cameras To Cover Every Inch Of Chicago Town

Chicago Tribune | March 24, 2005
By Angela Rozas

It was just another weekend service for churchgoers in this Milwaukee suburb when, without warning, they began to be gunned down by one of their own.

Pretty soon, if you're tossing a paper napkin on the ground, making an illegal U-turn or even letting Fido relieve himself on the streets of Bellwood, be forewarned: Somebody could be watching.

In the hopes of eliminating crime, village officials say they'll have all the public ways in the 3.5-square mile town under camera surveillance within two years.

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Though other cities like Chicago have set up cameras in high-crime neighborhoods, Bellwood will be the first town in Illinois, and possibly the first in the country, to have every public thoroughfare, sidewalk and alley under the watchful digitized eye of the Bellwood Police Department.

Civil libertarians question Bellwood's approach and wonder how much surveillance is too much.

"Where is the conversation about what kind of society we want and whether we think it's appropriate to do this?" asked Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the Illinois ACLU.

Bellwood's mayor said he welcomed the suggestion that his town might be considered something akin to a Big Brother-land.

"I wish we could create that image. I would love that," Mayor Frank Pasquale said with a chuckle. Although village officials say their town is not unsafe, and in fact crime has dropped in the last two years, they are aiming for a crime-free future.

"Let this be a warning to our criminals," Pasquale said. "Be aware. We have you covered. So go elsewhere."

The cameras, which police will monitor at the department's call center and can access through laptops in their cars, are the latest technology. They're wireless and sound-activated. Any excessive noise prompts the cameras to tilt and point toward the sound, enabling the department to home in on a crime even as it is happening. The images are beamed to the department and the laptops through highly encrypted Internet servers and can be downloaded to compact discs to be used as evidence. High-ranking department officials eventually will be able to access the cameras via hand-held PDAs.

In a demonstration Wednesday, a camera set on a lamppost in the Bellwood Police Department parking lot was able to zoom in on the license plate of a car parked about five blocks away. When a gun was fired into the air, the camera took less than one second to shift toward the sound and zoom in on the demonstrator.

"We can look for chain-link fences rattling, gunshots obviously, car alarms, burglar alarms," said Steve Daugherty, president of Current Technologies, the Naperville-based company that built and will install the cameras for Bellwood. "Any sound that's discernible, we can find it, sense it and point a camera at it."

But unlike the flashing blue-light districts in Chicago, Bellwood officials say most of their cameras won't be visible to the public eye. The point is not to deter crime, but eliminate it, they said.

"The unfortunate thing for a lot of communities is they don't have the ability to put an entire network over the entire city. So what they in essence do is move crime from one area that the cameras are in to another area," said Bellwood Public Safety Director Wilson Pierce.

Bellwood has about 21,000 residents and a police force of about 50. Town officials said they started looking at a camera network after the Sept. 11 attacks. They watched as other communities installed one or two cameras, or in the case of Maywood and Chicago, groups of cameras. That wasn't what Bellwood wanted, officials said.

"I'm thinking, why do I want to keep chasing [crime] around? Let's stick our neck out. It's a risk, but let's do it," Pasquale said.

The first 21 cameras will be installed starting in May, covering about 60 percent of the town. Blanketing the whole town will come in less than two years for a total cost of about $750,000, officials said.

Revenue from speeding tickets and other vehicle violation citations officers will be able to give with the new technology is expected to offset the cost, officials said.

The project has won kudos from many business owners and residents, who say they'll feel safer with the police looking over their shoulder.

"I like it. I like this idea," said resident Vessie White, 68. "I think it would prevent a lot of things bad from happening, if people knew they couldn't get away with it."

Business owners can pay to link their surveillance cameras to the city's network. Robert Foy, president of the Greater Chicago Bank in Bellwood, said it would be worth it.

"It's an incredible deterrent when they know this is a village under surveillance and they're likely to be caught," Foy said. "I see it only as a plus."

But groups like the ACLU caution that although complete public way surveillance may be legal, they question whether it is beneficial to the community, and at what cost.

Yohnka said towns should take care to ensure the technology does not abuse the rights of residents by zooming into the back seat of a car or into a bag left on a street.

Pierce said officers will be trained in the proper use of the cameras, which are for public-way use only, and the department can keep track of when cameras are adjusted and by whom.

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