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Illinois State Police Requests License Plate Scanners

Expressway shootings have surged in the Chicago area this year, surpassing what is normally seen in an entire year and increasing pressure for the installation of cameras and scanners that read license plates.

by Kelli Smith, Chicago Tribune / July 21, 2020
Downtown Chicago. (Photo: David Kidd)

(TNS) — Expressway shootings have surged in the Chicago area this year, already surpassing what is normally seen in an entire year and increasing pressure for the installation of better cameras as well as scanners that read license plates.

The Illinois State Police have recorded 61 expressway shootings in Cook County this year. That compares with 52 for all of 2019, 43 in 2018, 51 in 2017 and 54 in 2016, a year when gun violence in Chicago hit levels not seen since the 1990s.

More than half the shootings this year — 40 — have been on the Dan Ryan Expressway and Interstate 57, according to numbers provided by the state police. Among the other shootings, nine have been on Interstate 290, five on the Stevenson Expressway, three on the Kennedy Expressway, two on Interstate 80 and one each on the Edens Expressway and Interstate 394.

The reason for the spike is unclear, but the coronavirus pandemic could be part of it, according to Beth Hundsdorfer, a spokeswoman for the state police. During the stay-at-home order, the state police recorded 29 expressway shootings in the Chicago area.

“Traffic on most expressways was sparse, which gave offenders an easy avenue of opportunity to escape,” she said. “This sparse or reduced traffic also limited the number of potential witnesses to assist with creating leads to solving these violent offenses.”

There have been just six arrests for expressway shootings in Chicago this year, but that’s still better than it has been in other years. There were two arrests in 2016, two in 2017, three in 2018 and six in 2019, according to the state police.

Hundsdorfer said the traffic cameras in place along the expressways are little help to investigators.

“Traffic-monitoring cameras are very useful to determine if traffic is congested or if a crash has occurred,” she said. “But they provide no investigative value to expressway shooting investigations. In many instances, the existing cameras can’t provide the make, model or even color of vehicles.”

High-definition cameras would solve some of those problems, while license plate scanners would allow police to better trace and track down suspects, she said. A law passed last year authorized the installation of both, but so far only a small number have been placed along expressways in the Chicago area, Hundsdorfer said.

The law was named for Tamara Clayton, a U.S. Postal Service employee who was shot and killed last year while driving on I-57 on her way to work. She had told friends she avoided the Dan Ryan because she was afraid of being shot.

The murder remains unsolved. Her sister, Alma Hill, believes better surveillance could have led to an arrest in her sister’s case and many others that have followed.

“That would mean (police) would know the car, they would know the license plate,” Hill said. “It’s not something that we’re thinking about that’s scientific and out of fantasy. It’s real. It can do the job.”

Hill said she was told high-definitions cameras would be installed by the end of May, but state officials haven’t given her an update since January.

“I know we’ve had the pandemic, but life goes on,” Hill said. “All I’m asking is: Where is the money? How was the money allocated? And the fact that the Illinois State Police needs help, Chicago police needs help, all of these individuals need help — and it’s almost like they’re downgrading the situation and ignoring it, and I don’t think they want to do that.”

The legislation directed that the cameras and scanners be paid from the state’s road fund, which is overseen by the Illinois Department of Transportation. Agency spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said officials were working with the state police and have been upgrading some cameras to high-definition.

“That process is continuing,” she said. Castaneda couldn’t give a date for when it would be done.

Improving video surveillance on Illinois expressways has been discussed for years as more police agencies have upgraded their cameras and deployed license plate scanners, which automatically capture all plate numbers that come into view, along with the location, date and time, plus photographs of the vehicles.

“Due to the speeds and time of day most of these shooting incidents occur, we have determined that implementing … license plate readers on the Chicagoland expressways would be most beneficial,” said Hundsdorfer, the state police spokeswoman.

“Investigators deal with a commuting population, making it difficult to develop witnesses unless witnesses contact law enforcement after the fact,” she said.

Chicago police started using license plate scanners to combat a sudden increase in carjackings several years ago and now have more than 200 of them in squad cars. Officers use the scanners to match license plates against a list of stolen vehicles and those involved in crimes.

After a drive-by shooting on the Dan Ryan last week, Chicago police Superintendent David Brown was asked whether more and better cameras should be installed on the expressways, even though the state police and not the Chicago police have jurisdictions on them.

“As you know, in Chicago we have a lot of cameras in the city, so it has been something that has been helpful to resolving crimes when we don’t have any other leads,” he replied.

Some civil rights groups have raised concerns about the new technology, worrying that the data could be misused.

“Can a government agency install these kinds of camera systems and not necessarily create a constitutional violation?” asked Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The answer may be yes, but ... this shouldn’t just be a question of if you can do it. It should be a question of whether or not you should do it.”

Studies indicate that improved surveillance just moves crime from one area to another, Yohnka said. He pointed to misuse of law enforcement databases for personal reasons as an example of ways the cameras can be abused.

“Chicago has one of the largest, most sophisticated camera systems in the whole world (and) still to this day we haven’t seen the privacy policies around these cameras,” Yohnka said. “These questions end up being important. And then when you combine it with ... is there some peer-reviewed evidence anywhere that cameras actually deter crime?”

Hundsdorfer, however, said state police are determined to increase the number of cameras and improve network capabilities “in order to ensure we have the best technology available to assist with decreasing gun violence and drug trafficking on Illinois expressways.”

©2020 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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