An illustration showing a figure looking up at an intimidating array of cameras, depicting the growing use of private camera surveillance by CPD.
Illustration: Eva Azenaro Acero

In a 2019 speech to the City Club, then-Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson credited enhancements to CPD’s surveillance network for reducing crime in Englewood. Johnson boasted police were solving crimes faster and collecting stronger evidence by pulling “surveillance video from more than 40,000 cameras that are placed through the city.” 

The transcript of Johnson’s speech—which the Weekly found among the thousands of emails released by DDoSecrets in April—shows Johnson bragged that in one investigation detectives were able to “pull footage from private security cameras too.”   

Those cameras are part of a network the City has quietly expanded since at least 2009 by subsidizing security cameras for renters, homeowners, and businesses who connect them to the department’s surveillance centers.  

An analysis by the Weekly found that at least fourteen different organizations, from Wicker Park and Andersonville to Back of the Yards and Englewood, receive funding through City contracts to promote and manage camera rebates to residents and businesses. Through the Special Service Area (SSA) program and the Private Sector Camera Initiative (PSCI), the city distributes millions annually to local nonprofits.

The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council offers rebates for two fully subsidized cameras per storefront, citing a 2017 partnership with CPD. In Rogers Park, owners and tenants of street-level commercial properties can apply to the Rogers Park Business Alliance for up to one hundred percent funding for camera purchase and installation. 

West Town tenants and building owners can apply to the West Town Chicago Chamber of Commerce for up to seventy-five percent of cameras’ purchase and installation price. In West Lawn and Englewood, the Greater Southwest Development Corporation distributes grants as large as $1,500 for qualifying businesses to purchase cameras. 

Mayoral appointees oversee each nonprofit’s program execution, and recommend budgetary allocations for their nonprofits to the City.

The Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) conducts an on-site inspection to confirm cameras meet the City’s specifications, then connect them to one of the largest and most powerful integrated video surveillance networks in the world.

In May, OEMC announced a feature that helps residents partner with police. Through, residents can volunteer to share their home surveillance camera footage any time CPD contacts them.

The portion of the network’s growth accounted for by private cameras is currently unclear; no public data accounts for how many are linked to the network.

Freddy Martinez, executive director of the Chicago-based transparency and digital rights group Lucy Parsons Labs, said the Labs’ numerous requests for PSCI data have all been rejected. 

“You never know which one of these cameras is connected in a bank or in a school,” said Martinez, “so that’s why we’re trying to figure out how many there are, and their locations. But we never get any answers.”  

Chicago’s surveillance network has ballooned from around 11,000 cameras in 2011 to at least 35,000 today. Ed Yohnka, director of communications and policy at the ACLU of Illinois, said despite persistent admonitions from the ACLU, the City Council has never held a public hearing addressing the camera network, let alone proposed any ordinances regulating it.  

“There is literally no public disclosure of who can make the decision to start tracking, and what the guidelines are for that tracking,” he said. “In other places, where these systems are in place, or as they’ve been built out, you have this debate as to what the privacy policies should be, and those debates take place in public.” 

“Everybody recognizes that the system here is the largest and most pervasive in the country,” said Yohnka, “and yet we’re the least transparent.”

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As industry left Chicago’s Black Belt in the 1970s and 80s and unemployment skyrocketed in Black communities, CPD accelerated surveillance, deploying geographic information systems and expanding databases to mobilize beat cops to Black communities.

By 2000, CPD had entrenched disproportionate representation of Black and brown people in crime databases—legitimizing their hyper-surveillance and policing. 

After 9/11, the Bush administration fueled rapid proliferation of novel surveillance technologies and policing methods in cities across the U.S. The influx of federal funds earmarked for digitized surveillance and policing empowered CPD to continue weaponizing racially overdetermined crime databases with unprecedented sophistication.

In Chicago, officials beta-tested these technologies in Black and Latinx communities before expanding their reach across the city. 

The CPD first linked its command center to a Department of Homeland Security-funded “fusion center” in Springfield in 2003. The center integrated numerous state and federal criminal databases, allowing law enforcement to cross-reference mugshots, video footage, biometric data, and location information. 

By 2005, CPD was this model, planting its first data centers in predominantly Black, South Side neighborhoods. That year, OEMC drew from funds from federal counterterrorism initiatives to launch Operation Virtual Shield (OVS). Starting on the South Side, agency officials cast a net of more than 2,500 cameras with movement-tracking capacities across Chicago, and connected them to a single network accessible from OEMC headquarters. Operators could suddenly track people’s movements from camera to camera with previously unmatched seamlessness and precision. 

DHS counterterrorism grants funded the proliferation of police data centers across the South and West Sides throughout the mid- and late-2000’s.

As federally funded data centers and surveillance networks proliferated during the final years of the Bush administration, however, public backlash prompted DHS to shift its surveillance expansion strategy. During President Obama’s administration, DHS began giving counterterrorism grants to nonprofits, who passed those funds to subcontractors, or used them for mentorship programs and other initiatives purportedly aimed at preventing “radicalization” of youth in primarily Muslim communities.

“The Department of Homeland Security initially tried to give the money directly to communities. Then they realized this was controversial,” said Nicole Nguyen, professor of Education Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago specializing in surveillance and policing. 

President Obama formalized this strategy with the launch of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program in 2011. CVE promised a preventative approach to counterterrorism through partnerships with local organizations to create mentorship programs, education initiatives, and other community-based interventions to steer at-risk populations away from violent extremism. 

This model, Nguyen said, allowed DHS to build federal surveillance power by deputizing local nonprofits and social services groups. “It’s using a front organization that provides legitimacy to what would be seen as an illegitimate policing initiative,” she explains. 

Internal documents detailing CVE operations obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice show that DHS sought to recruit members of primarily Muslim communities and leaders of partner organizations to act as informants, and distributed hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars annually to fund expansion of local law enforcement’s surveillance apparatuses.  

Under President Trump, CVE programming explicitly targeted other non-Muslim communities as well. The Brennan Center found that during Trump’s presidency, eighty-five percent of CVE grants distributed to Chicago and eighteen other cities participating in the program specifically targeted Black, immigrant, Muslim, or LGBTQ communities. 

Chicago began receiving CVE funding in 2016, and the OEMC told Chicago’s inspector general it started adding cameras in 2012. 

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An audit commissioned by the City shows some organizations were receiving funding for camera rebates as early as 2009. Chicago has since received hundreds of millions of CVE dollars annually to build out its surveillance apparatus. This year, the Biden administration granted the City $68 million in Urban Area Security Initiative grants, on top of the $14.5 million it granted the state of Illinois. The portion of these funds earmarked for camera rebates is not accounted for in the City’s annual budget, nor in DHS’s CVE reports.

As federal and local officials continue to pour funds into surveilling Black and Latinx neighborhoods during the pandemic, their residents are again facing tandem housing and unemployment crises. 

Officials “call it public safety, but they don’t consider public safety things like access to education and clean drinking water,” Martinez said. “Cameras are not going to solve a history of redlining in Chicago, or correct this disinvestment.”

Meanwhile, Chicago continues grappling with the police killing of thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo—who was shot by cops responding to an alert from another unregulated surveillance program called ShotSpotter.  

“The problem with these programs is they’re pitched as an alternative to law enforcement, but it’s about intensifying police power,” Nguyen said. “We want to solve more crimes with more cameras on the street, but who is being policed then? Who is actually being surveilled?” 

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Michael Murney reports on housing, policing, immigration, and beyond; he is currently pursuing his M.S. in Journalism at Northwestern University. He last covered the people organizing for a community benefits agreement for the Obama Center.


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