On a warm afternoon on Chicago’s West Side, a young African-American man leans against the wall of the One Stop Food and Liquor store at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Homan Street. His puffy black jacket is so oversize that the collar hangs halfway down his back. Thirty feet up, a camera mounted on a telephone pole swivels toward him.

Three miles away, in a bunkerlike, red granite building near Greektown, Ron Huberman watches the young man on a PC screen. “You see that guy?” asks Huberman, the 33-year-old chief of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. “He’s pitching dope – you can tell. Fucker.”

The corner of Chicago and Homan used to be a haven for dealers slinging heroin and rock cocaine, the heart of a gangbanger free-fire zone. In 2003, the Windy City had 598 homicides, making it the country’s murder capital.

“We’ve gotta figure out where’s he keeping the goods,” says Huberman, his voice breaking from a bout with the flu. “We’re gonna go on the air” – call for a police car – “and bust him.”

With a move of his mouse, Huberman pans to the right. We’re looking down at a second man, in a beige coat. He has a brown paper bag in one hand and a wad of cash in the other. “He’s involved,” Huberman says, staring hard at the screen. No cop, even undercover, could ever get this close for this long. But the cameras – housed in checkerboard-patterned, 2-foot-tall boxes the police here call pods – can zoom in so tight I can see the wisps of a mustache. Huberman decides not to have his suspected dealers picked up; too much of an Enemy of the State move to pull with a reporter around, perhaps. But the footage will be stored for review by antinarcotics teams. “Now you see the power of what we’re doing?” Huberman asks, still staring at the screen.

IT has been key to crime-fighting since patrol cars got radios in the 1920s. A couple of decades ago, London started installing surveillance cameras. In the 1990s, New York began crunching crime statistics and produced a near-miraculous improvement in public safety. By comparison, Chicago was a Cretaceous backwater.

But Chicago has evolved. A pilot network of 30 cameras keeps watch over the West Side, capturing images that have been used in more than 200 investigations. It’s the first step on the way to a 2,250-camera system. And the electronic eyes are merely the most visible part of a strategy to completely remake police work in Chicago. A massive set of databases now collects and collates the minutiae of law enforcement – everything from mug shots to chains of evidence. Installed in patrol cars, it turns every PC in every station house into a node on a crime-fighting network. At headquarters, superintendents and commanders use it to pore over patterns of criminal behavior, figuring out how to deploy swarms of cops. Today, the murder rate is at its lowest point since the mid-’60s.

By embracing the cameras, the network, and this immensely powerful database, Chicago’s once-creaky police force has become an inspiration for departments around the country looking to get spry. “There has never been another comprehensive program like this in a major police department,” says Northwestern University political scientist Susan Hartnett, who’s been studying the CPD for more than a decade. Whether it means the end of crime or the beginning of the surveillance state – or both – Chicago is building the future of law enforcement.

By Noah Shachtman

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