Feel Safe Yet? Who's Behind the Badge | Feature | Chicago Reader

Feel Safe Yet? Who's Behind the Badge 

Greater surveillance and private security might wind up eroding civil liberties and leave some neighborhoods more at risk than ever.

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American cities are relying increasingly on private security guards and advanced technology such as video surveillance to secure public space. New York City is gearing up for the first phase of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, a $90 million program that will install 3,000 cameras in lower Manhattan by the end of 2008 and partner police with corporate security forces. In Chicago there's Operation Disruption--a multimillion-dollar effort that has placed 170 cameras in high-crime areas since 2003.

Chicago has been at the forefront of the "paradigm shift that re-conceptualizes policing," according to an article published last fall in the journal Social Justice. The authors--Nik Theodore, associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ryan Hollon, who will join UIC's Center for Urban Economic Development as a researcher this fall, and Nina Martin, a PhD student in urban planning and policy at UIC--examine how private companies carry out functions at the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Transit Authority that were once the responsibility of Chicago police. Theodore and Hollon spoke to me about the consequences of what they describe as "non-state forms of policing."

You write that private security is one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. and that the shift to privatization of public security predates 9/11. What do you attribute it to?

Nik Theodore: Cost cutting, downsizing government. Sometimes it's been moves to undermine some of the public-sector unions. The impetus has come from many different directions, and I think it just kind of kicked up a notch in the September 11 environment, where people could point to the need to expand in the case of security, because, quote unquote, the police can't be everywhere.

But a lot of it started with the broken windows idea [put forth by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly] that when routine little violations and rule breaking--lawbreaking--is allowed to continue, it leads to even greater crimes. So letting broken windows go, or jaywalking, or other seemingly innocuous crimes, when those are allowed to continue, the idea--which we don't support--is that greater crime is going to follow, that when order breaks down in a community, it leads to greater violations, both in level and type. And so I think one of the reasons that surveillance or increasing the number of security guards has been favored by those that believe in order-maintenance policing is that you need to have more patrol officers on the street, more surveillance of these public spaces, to nip it in the bud to restore order as quickly as possible before it spirals out of control. And so I think a lot of the kind of surveillance technology we're seeing as well as the privatization of policing functions is being justified in those terms.

Ryan Hollon: It's a dangerous way of looking at things because of the narrow understanding of order. So in the social perception, the responsibility for the more serious crimes gets placed on lower-level offenders as opposed to being placed on socioeconomic causes, which is the traditional, and I think much more accurate, way to understand crime. Whether it's an increase in the poverty rate, the disappearance of the job base, homelessness issues--all these other social and economic factors that are known to lead to crime. Those kind of get pushed out of the social understanding of what causes crime.

So how does privatization work--the government pays the security company to do the job that used to be done by public sector employees?

Ryan Hollon: Police don't patrol the public space in the ways that they used to, because that's exactly what's getting outsourced, but security guards don't have arrest power, so someone with more authority comes in and then the public-private partnership kicks into gear and there's a relationship between the private security guard and the police officer.

Do security guards have the power to detain?

Nik Theodore: On the CTA, for instance, do they have the power to detain or are they only there to call the police? They have all the trappings of an authority figure. They have a uniform. They've got bars. They've got the paraphernalia of policing. But will they actually leave the CTA box and chase down an offender? As far as you know, they do.

Ryan Hollon: One of the ways that the security services industry works and claims more market share is to try and inspire confidence in the public. So the industry communicates to the public that it can handle securing transit, it can handle securing prisons, it can handle securing whatever the formerly public-sector-run field may be. And so as that happens, the contract shifts and the liability shifts, but there's never a communication back to the people who pay the tax dollars about how this changes their rights.

What happens to probable cause and reasonable suspicion and to all of the rights we expect to have when dealing with the police?

Nik Theodore: The same kind of scrutiny and rules are not being applied to the private sector of policing. You'll see this whether it's in a shopping mall or other quasi-public space. Their job is to intercede and try to prevent disruptions, and oftentimes they do that through racial profiling or other kinds of profiling, and I think it's one of the reasons that some private landowners and the public sector at times are drawn to that--because the public-sector policing has increasingly come under fire for racial profiling.

So that line gets crossed regularly, and in so many ways. It is experienced by people that often don't have a lot of recourse--youth, the homeless, people that may be socially stigmatized--and so it's just part of the hassle now of negotiating urban space. A homeless individual gets run out of a public space, but because it happens so individually and so quietly it never gets elevated up to the status of legal violation.

If it's done by private security guards, is it actually a legal violation or do they have that leeway?

Ryan Hollon: It depends on the space. If it's in a private building, then the private security worker has a lot more discretion. But I think it's a great question because that's kind of unknown territory and I imagine a lot of that's still being figured out.

Nik Theodore: They represent themselves to the general public as having that authority, whether they in fact do I think varies on a case by case basis and whether they're standing at that moment on public or private property.

I think part of the way they inspire that confidence in the general public is through sheer visibility: so they're stationed at the CTA entrance, they have guard dogs on the platform. What exactly do those guard dogs do? Most people probably don't know. But it's just their visibility. It's projecting an image of authority and of professionalism and of security.

You mention the number of cameras around the city--2,000 in high crime areas and on CHA property.

Nik Theodore: It's a couple hundred of the blue lights and all these other surveillance cameras that are now being put in place. There's almost a web of surveillance around certain spaces.

So there's a difference between the blue lights and other kinds of cameras?

Nik Theodore: On the CTA you have all those little cameras, those little globes. Those aren't blue-light flashing lights. Those are a little more hidden.

What's the purpose of the blue lights? Deterrence?

Nik Theodore: Deterrence and just letting everyone know there's a camera here. They are explicitly designed to be visible.

Ryan Hollon: One of the things about the blue lights, that's where we see our approach to security reshaping the character of a place. In gentrifying areas, you can see a lot more community discussion around the cameras sometimes, where some people are like "We like this because it makes us feel safer" and other people are like "We don't want that because it's a marker of crime in our neighborhood and we're concerned about property values."

Nik Theodore: You see a lot of tension and mixed feelings.

Ryan Hollon: When you drive west on Chicago Avenue, for example, you see all these blue lights and cameras. Very few are placed on the north side; it's mostly a south- and west-side phenomenon. You see places being criminalized. So you can't drive down Chicago Avenue and say this is a normal African-American community, there are businesses here and a nice housing stock. You see these cameras, and so you automatically think crime.

Nik Theodore: They are not uniformly spread around the city, but the city doesn't claim that they are. When Daley spoke about this, he said upper-income residents have all this security around them, why shouldn't low- and moderate-income communities have the same?

You wrote that former police superintendent Phil Cline claimed that video surveillance had been effective in lowering crime rates, yet you were unable to corroborate his statement.

Nik Theodore: The police department wasn't able to corroborate it. They were making those pronouncements, but hadn't been able to provide systematic data that showed that that was in fact the case. I think it's important that the police department itself hasn't been able to make a compelling case that the blue lights are actually solving crime. We realize it's a difficult undertaking because there are so many factors that underlie changes in crime rates. So whether it's actually possible for them to measure this is an open question.

Ryan Hollon: Violent crime was declining in Chicago before this was introduced.

Nik Theodore: And it can spike for reasons that have nothing to do with it. I think it's a stretch to attribute [a declining crime rate] to private-sector policing or the use of advanced technology in policing.

Ryan Hollon: This [2006] was the first year in many years--several years--that the murder rate went back up.

Nik Theodore: I wouldn't blame the cameras that the murder rate went back up, but by the same token I wouldn't say they're the reason it falls next year. It's complicated.

Do you think the cameras make sense as a tool in the fight against terrorism? In the 1990s London developed the Ring of Steel network of cameras, which British officials say were useful to the investigations following the July 2005 subway bombing and the recent failed car bomb plots.

Nik Theodore: The blue light cameras have the purpose of disrupting street crime, but they're not going to be an effective deterrent for terrorism. What makes the London system different is the web of surveillance that is in place.

In Chicago we have the blue light cameras, which are not located near likely terror locations, whose purpose is to capture and record street activity.

You write that some of the new technologies are fetishized. What do you mean by that?

Nik Theodore: We were focusing in on the undue enthusiasm over certain technological solutions to some of the everyday patrolling issues. And without the recognition that in a lot of ways--whether it's the blue light cameras or some of the other surveillance techniques--it's not so much solving crime, it's redistributing it.

Do you actually know it's redistributing it?

Ryan Hollon: What we know is what we can observe, which is that it changes the location of crime. In the one mile or less radius that the camera scope can zoom into, that area's being watched, that's being recorded--there's at least the presentation of greater security within that space, which is generally a commercial corridor. But what a lot of residents have complained about is the displacement effect, where crime that used to be on that corner has been moved more to residential space. So you have this kind of changing geography of safety and insecurity within Chicago. There are people who will still gather under a camera, but something that's come up consistently in resident discussions of cameras is that there's more activity going on on residential blocks.

Nik Theodore: You can talk to anyone in those neighborhoods and you'll hear the same thing. The locations of the cameras were selected because there were instances of activity or complaints from merchants or complaints from residents, and now that problem has just moved.

Ryan Hollon: The Chicago Police Department in partnership with private technology firms has really been an innovator for police technology. And in and of itself that can have a real impact on crime reduction. I think what concerns us is when that's done at the expense of the patrol impact. Patrolling is generally where police officers build relationships with residents and that's where the best investigative information comes from. But when you see fewer policemen and women walking the streets and more people invested in the cameras, then the social distance between the police and the residents grows.

What about CAPS? Doesn't that compensate?

Nik Theodore: CAPS is probably a step on the part of the Chicago Police Department to get back in touch with the neighborhood, realizing that in many parts of the city it had grown out of touch over decades. I'm sure anyone would say, "Well, the technology is just added value, it's an added tool that's at our disposal." But we've seen this with a lot of technological advancements--the other side of the coin is that it becomes something you rely on.

Do you think Chicago relies on technology more than other cities?

Nik Theodore: Chicago is among the leading innovators, certainly in the use of technological advance.

We have more cameras?

Nik Theodore: We have more cameras, exactly. We had them first; we've got more of them. There's been a rush to implement the latest and greatest, even sometimes before we know it is in fact the greatest. The evaluation itself is a complicated process. Yet it's being trumpeted as a great success in fighting urban crime and being promoted pretty aggressively as a good thing for local government to be involved in.

I think it's one thing that the Chicago Police Department and local government have touted as one of their successful initiatives in recent years and so others are listening and others are trying to do the same. I don't know about with privatization where we stand, but it has been one of the areas the city has been noted for and that other cities are coming to learn from our practices. It's hard to figure out where all these things rank but we're on the leading edge.

What kind of impact have these changes in policing had on Chicago?

Ryan Hollon: The obvious changes are these issues around criminalization of place that you see all along strips like Chicago Avenue. Right around the United Center there are a number of cameras. It's an area that's undergoing rapid transition, demolition of public housing, building of townhomes and condos, and so you see these cameras playing a role as a security provider amidst that transition, because there's all this property investment being made and people are having to be convinced that it's safe to move into the neighborhood during a time of transition. So these technologies, one of the functions behind them is that they provide that air of security.

Nik Theodore: And so in those border areas, they're aiding and abetting the gentrification processes.

Ryan Hollon: The displacement that happened with the Plan for Transformation and gentrification of the area around Cabrini--those investments in the land are totally contingent upon some understanding of it being a safe area.

You wrote that the consequences of the expansion of private security and surveillance technology can be socially regressive.

Nik Theodore: Part of it is the social distance issue that we talked about. Part of it is the profiling issues that are raised by private security and the way in which that happens so quietly and individually yet can affect whole groups of people. Should it come to pass that the public and private sector turn increasingly toward private-sector policing because of private-sector policing's ability to undertake racial profiling, which has been condemned from coast to coast in this country, that I think would be a socially regressive outcome.

Ryan Hollon: While there's this increase in surveillance technology and private security, there's a disappearance of public housing, there's a disappearance of welfare, there's a disappearance of industrial jobs, and there's a disappearance of all these things that have been a safety net for poor people in cities like Chicago for decades. So as that disappears there's a new social priority placed on these other phenomenon.

You end your article with the idea that our sense of security is actually being undermined. How so?

Nik Theodore: Workers pull out of the [private security] industry because it's a low-wage industry with limited career advancement opportunities. But if you think about what does it take to build a trustworthy effective policing function, you want stability, you want career advancement, you want better wages, but I guess levels of unemployment are such in cities like Chicago that the industry can continue to find workers even though it has been reticent to raise the wages.

Ryan Hollon: And the issues around the rise in homelessness, the demolition of public housing, the unavailability of living-wage jobs in the city--all of those have very real connections with the crime rate. Anything that shapes the conditions in which somebody lives, whether it's housing or employment or support structures through neighbors because you've been there for ten years--when you get displaced your safety net disappears.

When you demolish Robert Taylor, a lot of the gang structures get moved all over the county, but also all the residents who were supporting one another and relying on one another and engaging with one another as a safety net, all that disappears as well. So I think there are so many environmental factors that go into safety and what safety means, it's a hard thing to get at.

Nik Theodore: I think most people recognize that when economic times get tough, you can often see more property crimes--that's all going to be independent of any kind of policing tactics or police technology.

Ryan Hollon: And then there's the question of what scale are you looking at? Are you looking at the municipal scale, or the county scale, or the regional scale? Because we've seen so much displacement of poor people from the city. A lot of the people who were living in communities that were high in crime and high in incarceration have been pushed out of the city, so is there now more crime in Ford Heights or Maywood or Rockford or being moved up to Milwaukee? I think you have to take all those factors into consideration. You can't just look at what's happening within the city limits, if your concern is for the people and not just the physical location.

With big mega events on the horizon like the Olympics, I think it is important for Chicagoans to come together and have discussions about what safety means and about how we feel about these changes before they become the norm.

A really profound example of how private outsourcing can endanger both public safety and human rights is the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. There were 720,000 people displaced throughout that Olympic development process. The evictions process was outsourced to a private company and so civil society in Korea couldn't directly hold the state accountable to what was going on. This is one of the dangers of this kind of unknown territory. Today Chicagoans have to ask, how do we create standards for accountable development that actually make people safer and don't take power away from residents or pave the way for displacement?

Nik Theodore: We readily internalize a lot of the new security provisions, like at the airport or just the presence of cameras in our daily life. But we don't stop and have that kind of discussion about, What are the implications? What are the limits? What are the boundaries around private policing? That I think is a legitimate discussion that has to occur in the public realm. But so much of these advances is noted and then absorbed in our psyche. I mean do you really notice how many cameras are on the el platform anymore? That stuff has just become part of our lives, like so many technological advances.

Ryan Hollon: But when you do make that commitment to community and public dialogue, then you totally open up the space for problem solving. Maybe some community blocks would be more than happy to have a camera there, if they were the ones who watched it. Or who knows? There are so many community-based initiatives that would become possible when you open up these decisions to residents.

And if it becomes something we accept without having these discussions, what are the consequences?

Nik Theodore: A lot of these advances are pushing up against the boundary of civil-liberty type of issues, and I think you have to take a hard look at the practices that are being undertaken.

I think the important point here is that this technology isn't just benign or neutral in and of itself. How it's being used is the issue. Where it's being used is the issue. And that's where those conversations have to happen. I don't think anyone's against technology. It's the use of that technology.

Ryan Hollon: And if that technology is replacing more in-depth or more organic or more sustainable police community relationships, that's an issue. And if our approach to pursuing safety is--as we're seeing with mass incarceration policies--actually destroying community, and destroying community networks, we have to really ask ourselves if we're providing security for future generations. Is it a smart long-term investment? Or is it just the appearance of a quick fix?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nina Martin, Ryan Hollon, Nik Theodore; a blue light security camera installed near Cabrini-Green as part of the Chicago Police Department's Operation Disruption photo by Carlos J. Ortiz.

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