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Chicago aldermen pressured by CPD to use menu money for cameras, license plate readers

“I’ve got plenty of streets that I need to try to get fixed. ... I need all [the money] I can get,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor. Four police commanders have asked her to spend $36,000 of her $1.32 million in annual menu money on a camera and a license plate reader.

A pole-mounted Chicago Police Department surveillance camera on the Near North Side.
A pole-mounted Chicago Police Department surveillance camera on the Near North Side.
Associated Press

With carjackings through the roof and a 50% surge in homicides and shootings, Chicago aldermen are under renewed pressure from local police district commanders to use their precious aldermanic menu money on surveillance cameras and license plate readers.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said each of her four police commanders — overseeing the Wentworth, Grand Crossing, Englewood and Chicago Lawn districts — have asked her to spend $36,000 of her $1.32 million in annual menu money on a camera and a license plate reader.

“I don’t want to use my menu money. I’ve got plenty of streets that I need to try to get fixed. And you know that menu is not enough to do my entire ward,” Taylor said.

“I need all I can get. And that’s not even talking about the manufacturing and trucking yards that I have in my ward. That’s wear and tear on streets.”

Referring to the Chicago Police Department’s $1.55 billion budget, Taylor said, “They spend 38% of the city budget. They should pay for it.”

Before signing off on the request, Taylor said she wants CPD Supt. David Brown to “show me the data that proves these cameras work” to reduce crime.

“We’re spending a lot of money on cameras and we ain’t solving no crimes. So it’s like, why would I pay for something that does not help?”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) said all three of his commanders — from the Deering, Englewood and Chicago Lawn districts — made similar requests.

“Every alderman is being pressured by their commanders, saying ‘We need your money.’ Where was that question when the mayor cut 600 police officer positions to save $34 million? Why wasn’t any of that savings allocated towards technology?” said Lopez, one of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s most outspoken City Council critics.

“You’re forcing us to choose whether or not to resurface an alley or upgrade sidewalks or do those kinds of things the menu was designed to do because this department has not allocated the resources necessary to protect our residents.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he was the first to use menu money to purchase license plate readers for his local police districts — with wish lists of locations, prioritized based on traffic volume and crime data provided by district commanders.

Those same commanders “reached out recently requesting” even more license plate readers to stop the carjacking epidemic.

“We will do our best to accommodate as many as we can” while balancing it against “miles of infrastructure that need to be maintained downtown on $1.3 million a year,” Reilly wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

“The City Council may need to consider a future budget amendment to shift funding within the department to pay for these themselves moving forward. If there is this kind of demand for them, the department should take note and make it a funding priority rather than sending their commanders to aldermen to ask them for the money.”

All 50 wards get $1.32 million apiece every year for infrastructure projects of the local alderman’s choosing. It’s a pot of money that, aldermen have long complained, does not go nearly far enough.

West Side Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) plans to use his menu money to purchase five license plate readers and surveillance cameras in both the Ogden and Harrison districts, under pressure from local residents to stop the “surge in violence.”

“If crime is running folks out of my community, it doesn’t matter if I’ve got a paved street or lights because nobody is gonna want to be here,” Scott said.

“I would love to be able to spend all of my money on all roads. I would love to be able to spend all of my money on lights and alleys. I’d love to be able to spend it on curbs and gutters. However, we’re in a time and place right now where it’s all hands on deck.”

Far Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) acknowledged “losing a single cent of infrastructure dollars is where it hurts.” But he understands the request from a police department being “slashed left and right” with more to come.

“They’re losing budget toward hiring police officers. There’s other aldermen looking to re-allocate more funds from them. They’re bleeding the department and I’m assuming we’ll be doing it again in the next budget for political purposes. So it’s a difficult ask for them as well,” Napolitano said.

Lightfoot’s $3.7 billion capital plan would increase the menu program’s buying power to $1.8 million per ward by taking projects off aldermen’s plates.

In return, however, the mayor wants aldermen to relinquish control over the selection of projects, turning those decisions over to the Chicago Department of Transportation.