Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cameras still give me the creeps

I have to confess that whenever I happen to be driving my car in Chicago and see off in the distance one of those blue-and-white Chicago Police boxes that contains surveillance cameras, my initial reaction is to wonder how my innocuous actions could possibly be distorted into something sinister.

For the fact is that we’re being watched. Somehow, the fact that the police try to justify the intrusion into our privacy by saying that the cameras are located in the open and only complete idiots don’t realize they are in place does not make me feel any better.

SO I WASN’T the least bit surprised to see that Chicago Tribune report this week about the cameras – the one with a headline of “Chicago is most closely watched city in America.”

Learning from the Tribune that the police are considering the cameras a success because they provided enough “evidence” erase any doubt that former Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott committed suicide doesn’t ease my unease about the concept.

The idea that cameras could literally follow his car as he made what turned out to be a fatal drive seems a bit much – even though they did not manage to get the so-called “money shot,” the moment of death. Should it really be possible for camera to camera to capture someone’s journey?

What happens if something truly stupid captures police attention, thereby diverting attention from incidents that more legitimately would be worth police attention.

THAT IS THE part of all of this that has me curious. The Tribune reports that there has to be at least 10,000 individual cameras in this network – some of which are private, but with police being permitted to see the video.

That’s an awful lot of video.

Does the Chicago Police Department truly employ enough people where it can be said that every single cinematic moment captured on camera is studied in detail? If they do, that is one heck of an extensive use of manpower.

A part of me wishes that some of those officers could either be diverted to patrolling those streets (instead of looking at video), or that the money being used to pay for video studying could be shifted to other parts of the police budget.

BUT SOMEHOW, I get the feeling that we don’t have any such great use of manpower to study all that video. Which makes me wonder if the idea of getting caught committing some illegal act because of video evidence is more of a crapshoot than anything else.

Are there people who will wind up never being arrested because nobody was ever able to get around to checking that particular video segment? Or is there the chance that some criminal act will be missed because someone happened to shift to viewing a new camera’s output just moments before the crime took place?

It just seems to be an extensive video output whose resources could be better used elsewhere.

Now before anyone assumes I have some self-interest in this issue because I did something that happened to get captured on camera, I can say I did not.

OR, AT LEAST I don’t think I did. Let’s just say that if there is some video of me doing something funky, I have never been confronted by anyone about it.

But I must admit when I happen to be passing through a strange neighborhood (as in one I don’t usually hang out) and see one of these cameras with its flashing blue lights on top, I have to wonder if there really is someone watching me at that very moment.

And how incredibly bored they must be if they have nothing better to do than to watch me drive/ walk down the block. Should I do something to lighten up their day? Or should I just make some sort of rude gesture before walking away?

While the Tribune reported on a study that found one neighborhood reporting significant drops in crime when the cameras were put in place, I know most of the neighborhood activist types whom I have spoken with almost see the flashing blue lights as some sort of joke.

LIKE THE POLICE trying to impose the image in our brains that “the law” is omnipresent. Only the real criminals manage to figure out pretty quickly which parts of the block are within range of the cameras, and which spots are not.

Does this mean that all we’ve really accomplished is to cause crime to move a few feet away from where it once took place?

Or should we now view this video set-up as the Chicago equivalent of “America’s Stupidest Home Videos?”

What a relaxing thought. Smile!


EDITOR’S NOTE: London is about three times the population of Chicago, yet has about half the number of (,0,1636617.story) public video cameras in use by police. As for New York, it has less than half of Chicago’s, and many of its cameras don’t work.

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