Herbert Dyer, Jr.

“A guy receives a traffic ticket from the police department in the mail. It includes a picture of him at the wheel of his car as he ran a red light, his license plate, and an invoice demanding $250 or else. Sooo… our guy spreads out $250 on his kitchen table. Takes a picture of it … and sends the picture of $250 to the police department.” —Anonymous

In some Chicago neighborhoods, surveillance cameras sit high above almost every intersection. These are very sophisticated pieces of equipment, capable of zooming in close enough to identify what flavor of soft or not-so-soft drink a driver or pedestrian is drinking. Some can even read newsprint from 50 yards away. They also listen in on conversations on the street, inside your car, on your porch or stoop. They turn quickly in the direction of the sound of gunfire, zoom in, film and photograph the trigger man/woman.

The cameras were initially set up a few years ago to only monitor traffic at busy or problematic intersections. As you can see, that idea has quickly escalated into a real Big Brother operation.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the US Supreme Court has rejected an Illinois prosecutor’s appeal to allow enforcement of a law which would stop ordinary citizens from recording police officers as they do their jobs. A lower federal court had found that Illinois’ anti-eavesdropping law violates free speech rights because it was being used by police and prosecutors against people who tape law enforcement officers. The law had some serious teeth. It carried a 15-year prison term.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had filed suit in 2010 against Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to halt prosecution of ACLU staffers for recording cops in public spaces. This activity (filming of police) is done by the ACLU all over the country, usually with the full knowledge of the police departments and the individual cops being filmed. And so, when Illinois (read: Chicago) cops objected and got a law passed outlawing the filming of them, needless to say the ACLU was rather taken aback.

Upon learning of the ruling, though, Harvey Grossman, legal director of the Illinois ACLU, was “pleased” with the result. “The ACLU of Illinois continues to believe that in order to make the rights of free expression and petition effective, individuals and organizations must be able to freely gather and record information about the conduct of government and their agents—especially the police,” he said. “The advent and widespread accessibility of new technologies make the recording and dissemination of pictures and sound inexpensive, efficient and easy to accomplish.”


And so, it comes down to a question of fairness, doesn’t it? As noted above, the police can now get all up in your business without a warrant, without a request, without your consent, and even without your knowledge. Thus, it seems only fair that you ought to be able to film and photograph them even as they film and photograph you. This could make for interesting courtroom dramas—dueling videotapes, with Judge Judy as the final arbiter of which film gets produced and shown on Court TV.