When Police Abuse Surveillance Cameras

What happens when officers turn the surveillance cameras off to hide their misbehavior?

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Reuters/Joshua Lott

The ACLU has portrayed Chicago's extensive crime camera a system as a $60 million threat to privacy. Turns out Chicago police officers sometimes see the system as a threat to their privacy as well.

In the wee hours of June 13, 2009, a Chicago camera scanning a West Side neighborhood recorded a small, rowdy party taking place in a vacant lot. A young man standing in a nearby yard also comes into focus.

All of a sudden, the camera's circuitous route is interrupted, diverted back to the party and then pointed at an empty stretch of sidewalk. It stays on that spot for about 10 minutes, and when it returns to its regular rotation we see not one, not 10, but 19 police cars on the street next to the party. In the intervening period, police had arrived in force to break up a fight.

Torri Hamilton, the lawyer of the young man who had been standing in the yard – and was subsequently charged with resisting arrest, though later cleared – says police officers went in with mace and billy clubs to disperse the crowd.

Chicago's police-run crime cameras require manual control to be diverted from their usual scan. To Hamilton, the re-positioning of this camera, at essentially nothing, suggests the police, after receiving a call about the fight, had diverted the camera so that their use of force would not be recorded.

Jody Weis, former head of the Chicago Police Department, concurs with this diagnosis. He told a reporter from radio station WBEZ:

Weis says it's not too much of a stretch to think officers would divert the cameras. He says when he was in charge they had a problem with officers turning off the cameras in their cars, "and I think it was because people had a fear, we don't want this camera recording what we're doing and I don't know how many times I spent and said 'Guys, if you're doing your job correctly this camera's your greatest friend.'"

All of which suggests that the monitoring of cameras, thought to be one of the keys to successful crime camera systems, is susceptible to not just incompetence, but also abuse.

This fear of being caught in the act of using excessive force can be traced to the infamous Rodney King incident of 1991, in which a bystander captured Los Angeles police officers beating King with batons after a high-speed chase. Footage of the baton beating later sparked widespread riots.

Apparently, diversions of crime cameras are not uncommon. Along with their recently published study on the effectiveness of crime camera systems, the Urban Institute released a handy guide for officials planning on implementing their own surveillance plan. The authors warned: "cameras may be diverted to another viewable area when an incident occurs and catch little or nothing of the incident itself."

The report neglected to mention who might do the diverting.

About the Author

  • David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.