Surveillance cameras becoming part of Pilsen landscape

Three weeks ago, Kevin Matha watched as a city crew installed a white metal box on a streetlamp across from his second floor apartment on 19th and May Sts.

That night, Matha found that the box, containing a camera and known a surveillance pod, also emitted a constantly blinking electric-blue light into his living room and bedroom.

'It's like a Spanish discotheque here at night. The whole living room lights up, it's incredible,' says Matha, 24, who says people gathered around nightly at the pod to stare in curiosity shortly after it was installed on December 27th.

The surveillance pods may be the most up and coming architectural feature in this neighborhood of Bohemian-style spindles and proletarian Mexican murals. The Chicago Police Department put up this pod, and one at 1834 S. Laflin St. in late December, in response to elevated rates of aggravated assault and requests from residents.

Each pod contains a fully rotating camera that feeds footage to police laptops in squad cars. The unit can zoom in on activity several blocks away, allowing police to respond more quickly to suspicious activity.

The closest pods are four in and around the ABLA housing project along Roosevelt and Loomis Sts, where they have been used since last summer to monitor activity. The Chicago Police Department did not return calls on whether crime in these areas had dropped as a result of the pods.

But in Britain, which has a network of over 4 million surveillance cameras watching its streets, downtowns, and neighborhoods, reviews of the surveillance technology have yielded no evidence that they work better than bright streetlamps in deterring crime.

The electric-blue light atop the pod is meant to alert would-be criminals that they are being watched, but some residents around the 19th and May St. pod expressed concern that the cameras might be turned on their living rooms and bedrooms.

'Were not looking in people windows. That's not why we have those pods there,' said Community Policing Sargent Becky Arguelles, who scoffed at the accusation. She added that each officer is trained in First Amendment rights. In a dynamic straight out of Orwell's Animal Farm, at the police office of emergency management and communication, where the cameras are monitored, another camera monitors the monitoring officers.

Although the 12th District addressed the new pods in its last CAPS meeting, Arguelles says they did not notify residents of their installation prior, because 'we don't have to.'

In the last couple of weeks, the Alderman Danny Solis' office has been hearing complaints from several residents upset about the electric blue streak invading their homes. Other residents complained that the pods, as a visual insinuation of crime and poverty, may have an effect on property values.

'There is a big difference between price and value. Because a resident feels safer, they value that in different way than somebody who says ‘I want to sell my house this year,'' says Roberto Montano, Chief of Staff for Solis.

When asked about whether the alderman would welcome more pods, Montano responded that he was 'open to public safety,' and that he was considering requesting more pods for Pilsen's parks.

Without concrete data that the pods decrease crime, and not simply displace it elsewhere, Montano says the response will come down to how – and how loudly – residents respond.

'If one person is very passionate about the cameras and 25 people are indifferent, we'll do it,' he said.

The 12th District office, which oversees Pilsen, is in the process of relocating the 19th St. pod to the corner as a result of resident complaints, wiring problems pending.

For now, Matha says the new pod may simply be a matter of adaptation,' There will come a time when I get used to it. I used to live in New York, and after a while I needed a car alarm to go off so I could go to sleep.'