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How Tech Helped Chicago Police Solve the Jussie Smollett Case

The story of how the case involving the “Empire” actor went from hate crime to hoax involves dogged detective work and the latest in high-tech police technology, including video surveillance and data analytics.

On Feb. 20, Jussie Smollett, a 36-year-old actor known for his role in the hit TV series “Empire,” was arrested for filing a false police report and disorderly conduct in Chicago. His arrest followed weeks of growing national attention to what initially appeared to be a hate crime committed against the actor.  

How Smollett’s accusation unraveled has drawn intense scrutiny, but what has been overlooked to some degree is the role that police technology played in figuring out exactly what happened between the time a threatening letter containing a suspicious white powder was sent on Jan. 22 to Smollett, followed by his alleged attack several days later and when police detectives took Smollett into custody for filing a false police report.

A week after the Chicago Police Department (CPD) confirmed Smollett had received a threatening letter, the actor, who is black and gay, reported to police he had been assaulted by two men who yelled racial and homophobic slurs at him. The attack took place Jan. 29 in Chicago’s upscale neighborhood known as Streeterville. The attackers wore dark clothes, ski masks and, at one point, according to Smollett, they put a rope around his neck.

Chicago has one of the most extensive surveillance camera systems in the country — police and private-sector cameras — that allow CPD detectives to capture the evidence they need to fight crime. The cameras are part of CPD’s aggressive effort to use tech and data to reduce crime in the city. Besides tens of thousands of cameras, the police have deployed gunshot detection platforms, predictive mapping and data analytics to track and deter crimes.

In the Smollett case, detectives viewed video evidence and traced the movements of the suspects involved in the attack on Jan. 29, including footage of them getting into a cab, said Jonathan H. Lewin, chief of CPD’s Bureau of Technical Services, in an email. “Video from inside the vehicle, along with a series of public and private cameras on the North side of the city, allowed investigators to track the subject’s movement backwards to where they came from prior to the attack, which ultimately led to their identification,” he said.

To isolate video segments relevant to the Smollett case, police detectives used advanced video analytics tools, such as BriefCam, to quickly search through video segments from hundreds of cameras, according to Lewin. 

“A new high-tech analytics center, located in Detective Area South, combines video analytics and other capabilities to allow state-of-the-art investigative techniques to be applied to a wide range of digital evidence,” said Lewin. “These processes and systems complement Chicago’s Strategic Decision Support Centers, which are high-tech nerve centers deployed in 20 of our 22 districts.”

The support centers have had a significant impact in some of Chicago’s more crime-ridden neighborhoods. By blending the latest in police technology with human expertise and knowledge, CPD has been able to reduce crime, especially violent crime in some of the hardest hit neighborhoods. As the Smollett case demonstrated, the ability of CPD to act quickly as a crime is unfolding has received significant support from technology.

While the police had no video evidence of the actual attack, the efforts of the investigators, using the tools outlined by Lewin, led them to the individuals suspected of attacking Smollett. When the two men were interviewed by CPD detectives, a different story about the alleged assault began to emerge. On Feb. 16, the police released a statement, “We can confirm that the information received from the individuals questioned by police earlier in the Empire case has in fact shifted the trajectory of the investigation. We've reached out to the Empire cast member's attorney to request a follow-up interview.”

Four days later, the case involving the actor quickly unraveled. Smollett, once thought to be a victim of a serious hate crime, had become the suspect in an elaborate hoax meant to boost his fame and fortune as an actor. On Feb. 21, Smollett turned himself in to the police. The next day, producers of the hit series “Empire” announced they will remove Smollett’s character from the final two episodes in the show’s current season.

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.