Chicago would offer homeowners a $200 rebate to purchase exterior cameras as long as they also link the cameras to the city’s vast video surveillance network. The innovative plan is being championed by a rookie alderman to combat the never-ending cycle of gang violence.

Instead of spending $27,000 of his $1.32 million annual allotment of aldermanic menu money for just one crime-fighting street camera, rookie Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) wants to stretch those funds by offering the rebate as an incentive to homeowners.

The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that the Chicago Police Department spent a record $116.1 million on overtime in 2015 — up 17.2 percent from the previous year — to mask a manpower shortage that has mushroomed under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with police retirements outpacing hiring by 975 officers.

Lopez acknowledged Thursday that what Chicago really needs is more police officers to stop the surge in homicides and shootings that will only get worse during the warm summer months.

But at a time when the $30 billion pension crisis precludes more police hiring, Lopez argued that cameras are the next best thing. He called it a force multiplier with the potential to become a “huge deterrent.”

Ald. Raymond Lopez

Ald. Raymond Lopez wants to offer a $200 rebate to homeowners who install home security cameras (left) — as long as they also tie them into the city’s existing camera network (right). | Sun-Times file photo

“This week alone, we’ve had a sexual assault in Brighton Park, a shooting across the street from a school in Back of the Yards, and illegal drug sales and the gutting of abandoned buildings for scrap metal in West Englewood. It’s bad. A lot of the mid- and low-level crimes are on a daily basis,” Lopez said.

“To have residents call 911 and have OEMC immediately access local private cameras to try to catch a criminal will have a huge impact. They’ll be able to see in real time who is committing the offense. It’s going to help us increase arrests and convictions,” he said. “Criminals will become aware in certain areas that cameras are connected with police. That alone will be a huge deterrent. Police presence is a huge deterrent. This follows along that same logic. While we’re waiting for ways to pay for more police officers, this tool will allow us to increase our coverage in the neighborhood.”

Two months ago, Lopez fired off a letter to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart urging him to send reinforcements to assist Chicago Police officers with the gangs terrorizing residents of the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the Southwest Side.

According to Lopez, the plea resulted in saturation patrols that flooded the area with 100 officers and 60 cars, four days a week, for six weeks. Arrests were made. Offenders with outstanding warrants were taken off the streets.

“It did give the neighborhood a sense that they’re making a serious effort to crack down on gang violence in the community. But there’s more work to be done, which is part of the reason for the camera rebate program,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say I’m grasping at straws. I’m trying to find as many tools to fight crime as possible. Things are escalating throughout the city. As an alderman, why should I spend $27,000 for one camera when I could provide 135 cameras for OEMC for the same cost? It gives us a better opportunity to catch criminals in real time.”

Police Supt. Eddie Johnson was all for the idea.

“Anytime we can get added surveillance or things that will help us reduce this crime, that’s a positive thing. Anything that will help, I’m for,” Johnson said.

The superintendent was asked whether he’s planning extra patrols or stepped up overtime to combat the traditional summer surge in street violence.

“For the summertime, without giving away our playbook, we are addressing manpower issues. So I think we’ll be fine in terms of the resources we have out there,” he said, without revealing specifics.

OEMC spokeswoman Melissa Stratton said the city has “partnered with businesses that have voluntarily signed up” to join “Operation Virtual Shield” and foot the bill to integrate their external surveillance systems with the city’s vast network.

“OEMC does not routinely monitor the video from these cameras. They are proactively used during special events and during the course of an investigation by police after an incident,” Stratton said.

But she said: “We do not have any single family residences in our camera network at this time. We are always willing to consider proposals to help address and deter criminal activity.”

Washington, D.C., started a similar program in September, though it offers $200 per camera, up to a maximum of $500 per residential address, or $750 for other addresses. The cameras had to be registered with local police, but property owners were not required to tie the cameras into any police network.

Lopez said that locally, the rebate idea originated with block clubs and area residents fed up with gang violence. At least two dozen blocks “have expressed interest right off the bat,” he said.

The alderman noted that exterior surveillance systems range from $230 for four indoor-outdoor cameras connected to a digital recording system that stores up to one terabyte of information to $1,300 for a Cadillac system with eight dome cameras and a three terabyte recording system.

In 2008, the City Council agreed to dramatically expand Chicago’s Big Brother reach — with surveillance cameras on street sweepers and a revolutionary hookup that adds private-sector cameras to the city’s vast video network.

It allowed businesses, high-rises and even private homes with outside surveillance cameras to share their video with the city’s 911 center to create panoramic views of disaster scenes.

At the time, OEMC was authorized to reach out to businesses, sign agreements and create a public-private Internet hookup to transmit “fully-encrypted video” that, officials said, could not be compromised by computer hackers.

The American Civil Liberties Union reacted coolly to the latest plunge into the world of video surveillance.

The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce called the offer a welcome alternative to the costly plan then-Mayor Richard M. Daley once embraced to require businesses open more than 12 hours a day to install indoor and outdoor cameras.

No single family homes were ever added to the city’s network. The number of businesses was not known.