Complaints Mount on Park District Cameras

A Better Government Association investigation into the unfair placement of Park District security cameras has sparked renewed criticism from park neighborhoods and city council members about the quality and ineffectiveness of the expensive program

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) speaks before City Council during a June 17 meeting. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times)

The Chicago Park District’s security camera program is under fire by park advocates and some city council members who call it a worthless — yet costly — deterrent to crime in neighborhood parks.

Some city officials say the cameras, rarely monitored by Park District employees, are below the standard of quality to be looped into OEMC systems, according to interviews and records obtained by the Better Government Association.

The BGA heard similar complaints at five parks equipped with Park District cameras, including two parks where residents were encouraged by the Park officials to raise thousands of dollars to buy the surveillance equipment yet cannot get answers as to why they are not working.

“We really wish the park district had explained to our neighbors what the limitations of the cameras were,” said Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd, who said she tried for weeks to get footage from the $5,800 camera system at Oz Park in Lincoln Park on the city’s North Side. “They certainly would not have gotten it under those circumstances.”

The BGA received similar accounts from advocates of Fosco Park, Clark Park, Wicker Park and Haas Park.

“We’re only a half step above not having them,” said Anthony Porfirio, president of the Haas Park advisory council where eight cameras were installed in the park’s $4 million fieldhouse in 2011.

The criticism follows a BGA report in April that revealed how most of the nearly 90 Park District cameras are installed in more affluent neighborhoods with the least amount of crime, like Oz Park.

In the two instances where neighborhood fundraisers were held to reimburse the Park District for surveillance equipment recommended by their top vendor, some local residents say they were promised more.

Parks District Superintendent Rosa Escareño declined to be interviewed for this report, and her spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about the camera program, how it is monitored or the district’s apparent unwillingness to share footage with other city officials.

“As part of its comprehensive safety efforts, surveillance cameras are monitored to detect and address activity that might compromise park safety,” Park District Communications Director Michele Lemons wrote in an email response to BGA questions.

“I wish someone told us”

In all of 2021, one crime — a simple battery — was reported as having occurred on Oz Park’s grounds, police records show.

But the neighborhood furor over security began after a June 1, 2021 shooting nearby. Following a well-publicized incident in which a 17-year-old boy fired into a group of teens standing on the 2000 block of North Burling Street, dozens of neighbors expressed safety concerns.

The shooting occurred just steps away from Oz, in the parking lot of Lincoln Park High School. Another 17-year-old boy was wounded in the arm. The shooter was arrested a block away and charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon and two additional felony charges, records show.

Following the shooting, dozens of neighbors initiated “safety walks'' and called on city officials and police to increase foot patrols around the park’s 21 acres. 

Ald. Smith at a June 4, 2021 "Safety Walk" following a shooting near Oz Park. (Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times)

“​​It scared a lot of the adults,” said Shannon Waterfield, a frequent visitor of Oz Park whose two children attended Lincoln Park High School. “They think twice about going there now.”

Ald. Smith said she began asking the Park District about the operations of the camera overlooking the Oz Park playground shortly after the incident. The two cameras were installed in 2019 after neighbors hosted a fundraiser, records show.

Smith said despite several failed attempts by phone and email to reach the Park District’s security office, she never got any of the camera surveillance footage.

“Having a park district camera was not worthwhile at Oz Park,” Smith said. “It was not easily accessible to look at events as they were occurring or even afterwards.”

Smith told the BGA the camera isn’t regularly monitored by Park District staff, nor is it of high enough resolution to be looped into the Office of Emergency Management’s cloud of security footage.

She and advisory council members told the BGA that 18th District police officials informed them the camera system isn’t of sufficient quality to do any real surveillance. Smith said she is considering using discretionary funds from the city to purchase and install an OEMC camera that can be looped into the city’s cloud of surveillance footage.

Oz Park advisory council president Judy Johanson, who initially championed the campaign to bring security cameras to Oz park, says she feels the community was duped.

Johanson says she was advised by the Park District’s camera vendor to purchase two Honeywell Ball Cameras. She said she didn’t ask any further questions because they were the Park District’s recommended vendor.

In hindsight, she said she would not have purchased them.

“I wish someone told us,” she said.

Fewer Cameras in Higher crime parks

Five miles away in the city’s Near West neighborhood, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, said he faced a similar lack of communication from the Park District about cameras in Fosco Park.

“There is an extreme lack of coordination from the Park District on security measures,” Sigcho-Lopez told the BGA.

Lopez said getting the Park District’s attention on improving safety measures at parks like Fosco Park is a slow process that puts park-goers at risk.

Ahead of summer programming, Sigcho-Lopez said he made attempts to coordinate security protocols with the Park District's security team. But emails between 25th ward staff and Park District security show his attempts were unsuccessful because his requests were ignored.

The complaints from the council members came in the wake of a BGA investigation into how Park District cameras are primarily deployed in parks with more financial resources and less of a crime problem.

Public records and interviews exposed disparities in where the cameras are installed. Through interviews, the BGA found Park District officials repeatedly cited a lack of money to deny residents' requests to install cameras in Black and brown neighborhoods with higher levels of reported crimes in 2021.

By comparison, the Park District has installed nearly 90 cameras in 16 parks since 2013, most located in more affluent white neighborhoods with far fewer reported crimes in 2021, including three parks with no crimes reported last year at all, like Fosco Park. Oz Park reported only one simple battery in 2021.

Advisory council members at least three other parks echoed the same concerns about the effectiveness of the Park District Cameras, and say camera surveillance remains essential as safety precaution.

“I’m a bit skeptical of how effective they are,” said Bill Donahue, advisory council president at Clark Park in the North Center neighborhood. “That being said, I think that every park should have cameras, especially in high-crime neighborhoods.”

And in 2015, when Wicker Park advisory council members installed a total of 11 indoor and outdoor cameras after several instances of vandalism, former Ald. Joe Moreno, 1st, told neighbors that the purchase would “enable the officers of the 14th District to more easily and effectively police the park.”

Minutes from advisory council meetings going back seven years reveal how Park District officials have avoided answering questions about camera footage and how to obtain it.

“The communication between the Park District Security and the City Police to pull footage and share it needed a lot of work,” wrote Doug Wood, Wicker Park advisory council treasurer, in an email to the BGA.

In 2020, Wood says he was attacked by two people attempting to rob him of his cell phone and wallet. He says the incident was within view of several park cameras, but when he brought the issue to Park District security to file a police report, no surveillance footage was pulled.

Wood said complaints have led to improved communication with Park District officials, but there’s still room for improvement.