The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel of being the heavy hand behind legislation that would allow police officers to use drones to monitor the growing number of protests on the streets of Chicago.
The groundbreaking bill would allow drones to be used to hover over crowds, for the purpose of taking still photos and making audio and video recordings of demonstrations. Even more troubling to the ACLU, the drones could be equipped with facial recognition technology.
The legislation has already cleared Illinois House and Senate committees and is poised for a final vote in both chambers.
The bills are sponsored by a pair of Chicago Democrats with close ties to the mayor: State Sen. Martin Sandoval and State Rep. John D’Amico, nephew of Ald. Marge Laurino (39th), the City Council’s president pro tem and one of Emanuel’s closest aldermanic allies.
“Given Chicago’s history of surveillance against protesters and social justice advocates – including by the notorious Red Squad — the Chicago police should not be able to use this new, powerful tool to monitor protesters near silently and from above,” Karen Sheley, director of the ACLU Police Practices Project, was quoted as saying in a news release.
“The legislation also ignores sweeping surveillance tools currently available to the police – including an integrated public camera system that covers much of the city.”
Sheley noted that the House and Senate versions of the controversial bill “effectively guts” legislation passed three years ago requiring a judicial warrant for the use of drones by police in Illinois.
She wondered aloud why that’s even necessary at a time when there are 2,700 public safety cameras in Chicago that are part of a broader network of 27,000 private and government surveillance cameras.
That Big Brother network should be more than enough to keep close watch over the growing number of demonstrations protesting the immigration, travel ban and environmental policies of President Donald Trump.
“If this bill is passed, as drafted, during the next large scale political rally, drones could identify and list people protesting the Trump administration,” added Sheley.
“The sight of drones overhead, collecting information, may deter people from protesting in a time when so many want to exercise their First Amendment rights . . . This is too much unchecked power to give to the police — in Chicago or anywhere.”
Mayoral spokesperson Julienn Kaviar said the city met with the ACLU and “incorporated their input” to develop the proposed update to Illinois’ drone regulations.
The goal was “balancing privacy rights and ensuring the safety of those attending large-scale events in Chicago – whether at the annual Lollapalooza music festival or an impromptu World Series celebration,” Kaviar said.
If House and Senate approve the plan, law enforcement agencies would be required to report the date, time, location and authorized exception under the law in which the drone was used. The police department would also be required to delete any surveillance or other information gathered after 30 days, unless the information is relevant to a criminal matter.
“Under the current state law, CPD can only use a drone under very limited circumstances, such as preventing terrorism. This update simply allows CPD to monitor and secure large-scale events where a legitimate public safety interest exists in a more efficient manner, as we do currently with the existing security camera network,” Kaviar wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.
“The proposed updates would not change the existing privacy protections and limitations under the current law.”
Two years ago, a Chicago Sun-Times report that Chicago Police had opened six investigation into protest groups since 2009 prompted the chairman of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus to demand a hearing on police spying on protest groups.
At the time, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) characterized the police monitoring of labor organizations, Occupy Chicago, Rainbow PUSH and other demonstrators as unnecessary and intrusive.
After demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, police began using an intelligence-gathering center in Chicago they share with federal authorities to collect Internet data on African-American and left-wing groups protesting police tactics.
Police officials have said the investigations are legal and crucial to protecting public safety and they make sure that people’s rights are protected.
But Waguespack maintained that the investigations were “absolutely politically motivated.”
The alderman further noted before the NATO Summit in 2012, the City Council approved new regulations that required protesters to share event plans with the police.
At the time, Emanuel took issue with the resolution’s claim that the police “failed to provide evidence” its surveillance programs require “any proper legal evidentiary standard of proof.”
“We’ll take a look at the notion,” Emanuel said, but he added, “I do believe that doing proper policing and civil liberties are consistent.”