The Forest Park Village Council unanimously approved the purchase and installation of 11 video cameras that will be used to monitor and review unlawful activity in some of the village’s busiest areas at its first regular meeting of the new year on Jan. 10. Approval was given only after a rare but spirited line of questioning from one of the four commissioners.
The nearly 30-minute discussion Monday evening was triggered by a proposal outlined by Chief of Police Ken Gross that calls for the installation of surveillance cameras at a number of strategic locations, primarily on Harlem Avenue, Desplaines Avenue and Madison Street.
The discussion, while never heated, was a noteworthy departure from recent council meetings, during which few if any agenda items have merited even a single comment from the four commissioners or the council’s fifth voting member, Mayor Rory Hoskins.
Gross described the cameras as just the latest technological advance in law enforcement, something that would aid police in preventing and solving crime, and said the system is nearly identical to one currently used by police in River Forest. Gross said River Forest will soon be expanding its surveillance operation.
But the first question for Gross came from Commissioner Maria Maxham, who asked the chief how he would respond to anyone concerned about their privacy once the cameras are in place.
“On the street there is no expectation of privacy,” said Gross. “We’re not using this to peep into peoples’ windows.”
Maxham’s line of inquiry ended there but fellow commissioner Jessica Voogd stepped in minutes later with a more targeted series of queries, including questions about a draft department policy that was included with the proposal to purchase the system.
The mostly boilerplate policy, which Gross said he amended slightly from the version written by a third-party company, Lexipro LLC, includes provisions for prohibited activity, including that cameras shall not be used to “intentionally … invade the privacy of individuals or observe an area where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists,” nor shall it be used to “harass, intimidate or discriminate against any individual or group.”
But Voogd claimed that a section providing that signage would be installed in town to notify residents and visitors that they were being recorded had been removed (Gross and Hoskins later seemed open to returning to that idea and installing such signs in town). She also asked why no specific disciplinary policies were outlined for anyone who would use the cameras unlawfully.
Gross, who told the Review in an interview before the meeting that the cameras could be accessed by officers from their individual computers through an internet connection, was generally dismissive of Voogd. “We’re not swerving into peoples’ apartment buildings and looking in their windows,” Gross responded to one of Voogd’s concerns, before referencing a fictional character peeping on women as they were getting dressed in the 1978 farce Animal House. “It’s not going to be like a scene in Animal House where Bluto’s up on the ladder. It’s going to be for surveillance only. If someone was abusing it, there would be dis- cipline.”
Gross went on to explain that the written policy was still just a draft and added that existing department-wide policy would handle any disciplinary issues without needing a specific camera policy in place.
Hoskins then tried, and not for the only time, to steer the conversation back to the specific subject at hand, which was approving the expenditure. But Voogd persisted in her questioning.
“I don’t doubt the benefits of the system,” she said. “But I do think that we owe it to the public to just talk about [it] because we’re all human beings, right?” “I’m wearing a camera right now,” Gross answered, referring to the body-worn cameras now required for all Forest Park officers. “Every call we go on, there’s cameras everywhere. … On any call my guys are going on, especially on midnights, there’s probably 11 cell phone cameras on them, and half of them are probably being livestreamed … 1984 is long gone. We’re way past that.”
Earlier in his presentation, Gross had also said that he supported integrating the cam- era system with any future purchases by the village, saying that the park district, school district, or library — if they decided to buy surveillance equipment — could use a similar system so that footage could be easily accessed or shared.
With that as the backdrop, Voogd continued.
“Generally I’ve read that it’s best to sort of limit and manage who has access to the cameras and the footage because, of course, of misuse,” she said, without citing any specific sources. “What do we tell somebody who might be concerned about becoming, possibly, a victim or stalking, or an ex-partner misusing this technology to track them? And I’m more concerned about that when you talk about everyone in the community getting linked up to this system versus just if you train police officers managing it.”
“We’re not going to be looking into the schools or the parks or the library. If we have a comparable system, it just works bet- ter across all platforms,” said Gross. “But we’re not going to sit there and stalk teachers and kids. That’s not what the platform’s for.”
“There’s a lot of things that are possible but what’s probable,” he said. “Is it possible — and this is a quote from someone else and I hope you’re not [insulted] by it — is it possible that aliens can come out of the sky right now and shoot us with blue slime? Yes, it’s possible. Is it probable? No. So is it possible the system’s abused? It’s possible that any system’s abused.”
“It’s not possible,” Voogd shot back. “It’s happened. There’s a lot of documented cases of this. I’m not bringing this up, this is just things that I’ve found, so I want to make sure that we’ve thought about all of them to help. We need to convey to the public that we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe.”
When Voogd suggested that the council review the program annually, including permanent departmental camera-use policy that may be put in place down the road, Hoskins stepped in.
“If we find the program is problematic and rife with abuse, we can make a decision to scrap it or modify it,” he said. “I think we’re having a good discussion about the pros and cons, but let’s not anticipate that we’re going to see the worst. They’re good questions, you’re thinking ahead, and I can encourage you to think ahead, but this is a draft policy.”
“I have no doubt in the fact that cameras can help assist in reducing crime and in helping you do your jobs, that’s not why I ask these questions,” Voogd said in her final remarks on the subject. “It’s also important to just pause and make sure that we’re not getting ahead of ourselves and we’re talking about peoples’ rights and privacy, and that’s all. And I think it’s important to ask these questions so that we can hopefully be aware of these things as we’re moving forward.”
In the end, Voogd voted in favor of the proposal. It passed unanimously, as did a related proposal to contract for electrical work needed to install the system. Both proposals were not subject to an open bidding process, which Maxham later clarified with Gross was because the company, Griffon Systems, LLC, is the same one used in River Forest, making it easier for the two departments to share information.
The village will pay Griffon $163,275 for the 11 cameras, four license-plate readers, related software and equipment. It will pay another $19,700 to Lyons & Pinner Electric Companies for additional electrical work.
The cameras will be placed at the following locations: Harlem Avenue at the intersections with Circle Avenue, Jackson Boulevard, Roosevelt Road and Madison Street; Desplaines Avenue at the intersections with Madison, Roosevelt and Randolph Street; First Avenue and Roosevelt; Madison and Circle; and the Franklin North Tower (near Desplaines and Franklin Street).
The license-plate readers (LPRs) — which will be installed at Harlem and Roosevelt, Harlem and Madison, Desplaines and Roosevelt, and First and Roosevelt — automatically scan license plates as they drive past and can send automated alerts to law enforcement if, for example, a stolen vehicle or one that is connected to a warrant enters the village. Gross said the LPRs can also be used to solve missing person cases, including Silver Alerts typically issued for senior citizens with cognitive impairment who need to be located.
The cameras themselves, Gross said, can be both a real-time crime fighting tool and something used by detectives, who Gross said were “champing at the bit,” to have the technology available to help close future cases.
Earlier Monday, Gross told the Review that conversations regarding the cameras began during his tenure as acting chief in mid-2021, and both Gross and the council noted that the initiative was spearheaded by Steve Glinke, the village’s director of health and safety and former fire chief.
Gross said his department has already used River Forest’s surveillance system on multiple occasions, including to gather information on a March 2021 homicide near Circle and Harlem that remains officially unsolved. Gross said during the council meeting that video footage of that incident has led the department to identify a suspect, although that person has not been charged.
Gross also outlined hypothetical cases in which stolen vehicles, which he said are often used to commit additional crimes, could either be stopped in Forest Park or “chased out of town” after license-plate readers identify the vehicles.
The current plan is not to allocate an officer to monitor live footage on a regular basis, although Gross said that if a crime in progress is reported, he or other officers could use the cameras from their office to track suspects and relay information to “boots on the ground.”
“I think it’s great,” Gross said of the camera system. “When I started, we had typewriters and we wrote reports by pen. I’ve seen the department come a long way and this is just part of modern policing, using the technology that’s out there to help people, prevent crime and solve crime.”