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South Chicago, East Side

Can New Cameras On Stony Island Avenue Stop Drag Racing, Carjackings In Pill Hill? South Side Alderman Hopeful

Police observation device cameras and license plate readers will pop up in several areas, including along Stony Island Avenue, Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) said.

A technician places a Police Observation Device camera and License Plate Reader on Stony Island. Harris said the new cameras will help deter crime in the community.
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PILL HILL — Some South Side neighbors are pushing back against their alderperson for installing street cameras and license plate readers throughout the area in hopes of deterring crime and slowing down speeding drivers.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) announced Saturday she is adding police observation device cameras and license plate readers along Stony Island Avenue.

Over the next few weeks, cameras and plate readers also will pop up on neighborhood streets “experiencing gang violence and drug activity,” Harris said.

Technicians have already begun work to install the cameras and plate readers at East 94th Street and South Stony Island Avenue, Harris told Block Club. Some neighborhood cameras are already up and running, as well. Harris’ office will not disclose those locations so as not to tip off someone who might commit a crime.

While some neighbors say they appreciate Harris taking action, others say they worry about privacy and didn’t know cameras were being considered. Some residents said they doubt the technology will be effective.

“I just think it’s not going to work, and I’m wondering if it’s an invasion of privacy to a certain extent,” said Tracey Pickett, a Washington Heights neighbor. ” I, for one, would not go in that intersection because it’s nobody’s business who my car is registered to. We weren’t alerted to the fact that another level of Big Brother was going to be instituted specifically in our community.” 

The idea for the cameras came after a spike in carjackings and car accidents along Stony Island Avenue last summer, Harris said.

Together with the 4th Police District, she analyzed popular intersections where carjackers entered and exited the neighborhood with stolen vehicles, she said. Paired with the “astronomical speeding” down the busy street, 94th and Stony Island became the perfect place to monitor some of the most common crimes in her neighborhood, she said.

The cameras and plate readers record and police will have access to the footage, but it’s not a live feed being monitored by cops. Neighbors can report crimes like drivers exceeding the speed limit to police, and officers can use the security devices to track down whoever is responsible, Harris said.

“These are not revenue-driven cameras,” Harris said. “I want to kill that. It’s about catching criminals so when things are happening and the police have a plate number, they can put it into the system and these cameras will catch it.”

The cameras cost $500,000 from the alderman’s menu budget, an allotted amount each ward office receives annually for infrastructure projects and improvements in the community, Harris said. She hopes to ask for more funding from state officials to create a web of cameras across the community, she said.

“As an alderman, I don’t have all the answers, but I try to put together plans that will work for my community,” Harris said. “This is another tool to help the police do their job. And the more tools they get on their tool belt, the better they are at policing.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) at a City Council meeting on June 25, 2021.

Brian Mullins, a South Shore resident for 40 years, said he’s witnessed speeding drivers blow through red lights and crash their cars on Stony Island. Violent crimes and carjackings are also up in his community, he said.

But he doesn’t feel putting cameras and plate readers in his community is the best option. Police need to have the ability to catch someone in the act, not when they’re already gone, Mullins said.

“You can put 20 cameras up, but that’s not going to stop people from drag racing down Stony Island,” Mullins said. “Those are just after-the-fact solutions. We see those POD cameras all over the place, but what we don’t see is attaching those videos to crime. It doesn’t stop crime.”

Nedra, a Calumet Heights resident for 55 years who asked only to use her first name, also said carjackings and speeding have been persistent problems. She’s seen bad crashes on 79th Street and Stony Island Avenue “at least once a week.”

But she said she’s “on the fence” about the cameras, and it’s unclear to her how they will help prevent crime.

“It’s better to have than not to have,” she said. “The real solution is more police presence. If you have the POD cameras and the plate readers and they record someone going down Stony Island 100 miles an hour, so what? I think it will be probably best used as an investigative tool, but in terms of deterring crime at the time of the crime, I don’t think it’s an effective tool.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The intersection of 79th Street, Stony Island and South Chicago in Avalon Park on June 10, 2021.

Some neighbors said they should have had a chance to weigh in on the issue before the cameras went up. They feel residents have a right to know where they’ll be and officials haven’t been transparent about all the information the cameras can collect.

“We have a right to know what’s going on in our community, and we have a right to have a voice in what happens in our community,” Pickett said. “We weren’t awarded an opportunity to be part of the process, and I believe there needs to be more town hall meetings or a system in place where the communication is consistent and transparent and not discussed after the project is already completed.”

Harris said she’s aware that neighbors might be concerned about privacy, but there are cameras “everywhere you go.”

“When you go into the grocery store, you’re on a camera and they’re watching you,” Harris said. “Everywhere you go, you’re being watched. Big Brother is here. It’s too late to say that.”

The neighborhood devices will help police in the area where they need them most, Harris said. And once criminals know they’re being watched, “it’ll change things,” she said.

“I see technology growing and transpiring in a way where we’re going to be able to be better predictors of how to stop crime as it’s happening,” Harris said. “I think that’s what cameras will do for us over time: not stop all crime but reduce a lot of this street crime that’s happening.”

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