• Erin Hegarty
    JAN 10, 2022

    Aldermanic spending on police surveillance nearly quadrupled in 2021

    Spending on surveillance cameras through the menu program nearly quadrupled in 2021. [Chicago Inspector General's Office]

    Aldermen spent more than $4.3 million in discretionary funds meant for street infrastructure to buy new police cameras and license plate reader technology last year — more than quadruple what they spent on surveillance in 2020, according to data available on the city’s website. 

    Overall so-called aldermanic menu spending on cameras has risen sharply during the last year, prompting criticism from watchdogs and some aldermen who say the money should be spent on more traditional infrastructure like streets and sidewalks instead of on the surveillance technology. 

    The Aldermanic Menu Program sets aside $1.5 million from general obligation bonds for each of Chicago’s 50 aldermen to spend on infrastructure projects in their wards every year. Aldermen can choose from a menu of projects they would like to see done in their ward — varying from alley and street resurfacing to sidewalks repairs, traffic controls and the installation and repair of surveillance cameras. 

    “Projects chosen by the aldermen include the repair and upgrade of streets, alleys, curbs, sidewalks, traffic signals, street and alley lighting and street pole painting,” according to the budget department website, which does not appear to have been updated since each alderman’s menu budget was increased from $1.32 million in 2020 to $1.5 million in 2021. 

    But aldermanic spending on surveillance cameras and license plate reader technology has been increasing since at least 2018, when aldermen used more than $1.2 million of the total $66 million in available menu money on the surveillance technology.  

    Aldermen spent more than $549,220 on cameras in 2017, more than $965,000 on surveillance cameras and license plate technology in 2019 and more than $1.1 million on the technology in 2020, city data shows. Last year, aldermen spent more than $4.3 million of the available $75 million in menu funds on cameras. 

    2021 spending on Police Observation Device (POD) cameras and license plate reader cameras was led by Ald. Brendan Reilly (42), who allocated nearly $651,000 in menu money — or 43 percent of his total allotment— to the surveillance cameras. Spending on the cameras in the downtown ward ranged from the installation of new POD and license plate reader cameras to upgrades to the surveillance cameras. 

    Reilly allocated $115,343 in menu money on surveillance cameras in 2020 and $135,393 in 2019, city records show. The downtown aldermen, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, has actively promoted using the discretionary menu money on surveillance technology following a spike in crime and looting in his ward during the past couple years. 

    Other top spenders  included Ald. Michael Scott (24), Ald. Harry Osterman (48) and Ald. Michele Smith (43), who each in 2021 allocated more than $300,000 on POD cameras, license plate readers or other camera projects led by the Officer of Emergency Management and Communications.  

    In total, 28 aldermen spent menu money on surveillance cameras in 2021, compared to 23 who spent the discretionary funds on cameras in 2020 and 17 aldermen who spent menu money on the cameras in 2019. 

    In 2020, Ald. Felix Cardona (31) spent the most money on POD cameras and license plate readers at $178,700, followed by Reilly who spent $115,343 on POD and license plate reader cameras. 

    Cameras vs. ‘core infrastructure’ 

    The city’s menu program has proven controversial over the years as aldermen determine how to use the money on a ward-by-ward basis. 

    The city’s former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson published an audit of the menu program in April 2017, which found the program’s administration “does not align with best practices for infrastructure planning put forth by the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA).” 

    The “significant concerns” Ferguson identified with the menu program included that the then $1.32 million allocated to each ward “bears no relationship to the actual infrastructure needs of each ward.” Additionally, the menu program led to “ward-to-ward funding disparities.” 

    Ferguson in his 2017 audit determined that spending on the POD cameras and projects related to Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Schools programs “were unrelated to core residential infrastructure.” 

    The report found that from 2012 to 2015, aldermen designated $15.1 million to projects that were “unrelated to core residential infrastructure” including $870,016 on cameras, more than $8.9 million on park district projects, more than $2.2 million on Chicago Public Schools projects and more than $3.3 million on “miscellaneous” projects including murals, new trees and community gardens. 

    “Regardless of whether these other projects were worthwhile, because they were included in menu and not purchased through a different program, they diverted scarce funding from core residential infrastructure needs and undermined CDOT’s ability to fulfill its mission ‘to keep the city’s surface transportation networks and public way safe for users, environmentally sustainable, in a state of good repair and attractive,’” Ferguson wrote in the audit. 

    Laurence Msall, president of the fiscal watchdog group The Civic Federation, echoed some of the findings from Ferguson’s audit, saying his biggest concern with the menu program the lack of a system for prioritizing the infrastructure work it funds. 

    “We’re allowing the aldermen to use whatever measuring stick they want for their aldermanic prerogative or priority,” Msall said. “That doesn’t mean some of the projects aren’t good, but it does mean you can’t prove they’re as good as other [initiatives].” 

    “There’s no doubt more cameras probably help,” Msall said, but they become problematic when their rollout it not prioritized under a comprehensive plan and only “by what each alderman prioritizes.” 

    Msall also pointed to a lack of “best practices” for spending menu money.  

    “Instead of having a comprehensive plan, we allow this side-bar opportunity for aldermen to take tax dollars and allocate it according to whatever priorities they feel [are] most important,” Msall said. “It’s at best confusing and at worst, terribly inefficient in terms of getting a return on investment.” 

    Chicago would be “far better off” if aldermen took time to approve a capital plan that “prioritizes all of the needs for city infrastructure citywide” in a “transparent process…rather than just carving out a portion of the city budget for aldermen to spend,” Msall said. 

    Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for ACLU Illinois, told The Daily Line on Wednesday that the organization is alarmed by aldermen who use the money to buy cameras without first consulting ward residents. 

    “I think what’s troubling here, and what strikes at the core concern we have, is the communities are told in essence if they have a problem with crime or fill-in-the-blank, the only answer is more surveillance. That is the answer we always default to” without a real “check and balance” on the decisions. 

    CPD, Lightfoot turn to aldermen for camera spending 

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot suggested during an April 2021 news conference for community members to “coordinate” with their local alderman, some of whom had already used their menu money to buy and have surveillance cameras and license plate readers installed “at a particular intersection when there’s a community desire that exceeds what we are doing on a more systematic basis” with the camera network citywide. 

    Related: Lightfoot calls for new CPD policy on ‘foot pursuits’ after police fatally shoot 13-year-old 

    That came after each alderman’s menu money increased under the 2021 budget from $1.32 million to $1.5 million per ward.  

    Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) said in response to Lightfoot’s comments last year that city leaders were engaging in a “cash grab” by asking aldermen to dip into their infrastructure money for new cameras. Lopez told The Daily Line at the time he knew “very few aldermen” who don’t have other ideas for the money, adding he usually has “double the amount of projects” than he can fund with existing menu money. 

    Lopez and representatives from other aldermanic offices told The Daily Line on Thursday that police officials called aldermen last year requesting that they earmark menu money or dedicate any unused menu funds for license plate readers and POD cameras. 

    Lopez said the police department has “their wishlist of targeted areas” where they would like cameras to be installed, “but they’re relying on aldermen and that is completely unsustainable. It pits police policy against aldermanic policy.” 

    “Why a $1.9 billion government agency is trying to use aldermanic money to pay for these cameras makes no sense to me,” Lopez said. “There are wards that have serious infrastructure issues [and are] stretched for dollars” to improve things like alleys and sidewalks. 

    Ald. Anthony Beale (9) said he thinks menu money should be designated “strictly for infrastructure.” 

    “These other departments can get funding,” Beale said. “CPD has funding to do cameras and things like that — we shouldn’t have to spend money on cameras.” 

    “So how do I get cameras and my streets done and a dog park?” Beale asked. “There’s no possible way for me to accomplish that goal. It’s never been a balanced system.” 

    A spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department did not have readily available an updated count of POD cameras or license plate reader cameras and directed The Daily Line to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the data. The spokesperson said in an email that the police department added 200 license plate reader police cars to its existing fleet. 

    Other aldermen see it differently. 

    Ald. Michele Smith (43) said the $1.5 million is “a very important piece” of the funding tools aldermen and the city have available to get work done. 

    “This is really the most discretionary from a capital improvement sense,” Smith said. She said the menu program “is where local government really shines,” adding that aldermen can listen to their constituents and get projects done that “might not be the city’s first choice.”   

    Sometimes the use of menu money “gives aldermen power to do something quickly that doesn’t require waiting for Springfield or Washington, D.C.,” she said. 

    When it comes to spending menu money on surveillance cameras, Smith said sometimes the police department may have “limited resources, so everybody works together to get what they need and what they want.” 

    Smith also noted using menu money for surveillance cameras doesn’t mean any resident who wants a camera on their block gets one. “The police tell us where they think these things should go,” she said. 

    “The point is, since it’s a capital item you need to buy capital, something that will last,” Smith said, adding a camera qualified because it will depreciate over time.  

    Voters favor other safety infrastructure 

    The way aldermen choose to designate their annual discretionary dollars varies by ward too. 

    Some aldermen use a “participatory budgeting” process which allows ward residents to decide how to spend a portion of the $1.5 million. The participatory budgeting process generally culminates with ward residents voting on a list of projects they think will best serve the community. 

    Norma Hernandez, an urban planner at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, has worked on participatory budgeting for about three years across five wards. So far, Hernandez has found that in the wards she’s worked with, “people aren’t so focused on safety cameras, which is interesting.” 

    Hernandez recalled a request for cameras in the 40th Ward in 2020 in an attempt to address increasing crime, and that project won 3rd place and was funded through the menu program. 

    Rather than security cameras, Hernandez said she has seen “a lot” of requests for lighting to address safety issues, including in the Austin community and in the 33rd Ward.   

    “When they talk about safety, it’s more bicycle safety, street safety and streetscape safety,” she said of the wards she has worked with. 

    Additionally, while Hernandez said about 50 percent to 70 percent of menu funds usually go toward street repairs, the menu money residents vote on in recent years has also yielded community gardens, murals, bike lanes and outdoor gym equipment. 

    Hernandez said aldermen who use the participatory budgeting process tend to be more progressive aldermen. 

    Yohnka called into question the effectiveness of aldermen adding more surveillance cameras. 

    “This really sort of contributed to a disturbing pattern in the city where we add increasing layers of surveillance equipment without any real public input as to whether or not that’s appropriate,” Yohnka said. 

    “From the earliest days of the surveillance camera, you can find the years and years of promises about what [the city] would do to address crime in the neighborhoods — none of that has ever happened but there always has been more [surveillance],” Yohnka said. 

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