Every time Mercedes Alvarez patrols her community park on the city’s South Side, she savors the swing sets and the soccer games and the latest bloom of lilies. But that’s not why she is there.
The 57-year-old retired factory worker watches over the 21-acre La Villita Park in Little Village — a community guardian against the wave of gang fights and purse snatchings. Last year alone there were four reported gang fights.
“I feel like when I’m not there, any bad thing can happen,” said Alvarez, a foster parent and grandmother of 20. “People feel safer when they see me.”
When Alvarez talks about the crime problems facing her neighborhood, the park’s broken security cameras are on her agenda. Neither of the Chicago Park District security cameras installed atop the park pavilion have snapped a photo for nearly a decade, she said.
“We complain and complain, but they don’t listen,” said Alvarez.
The broken cameras at Alvarez’s park are actually a step up from most parks. Almost all of the neighborhood and community parks in high-crime areas throughout Chicago don’t have cameras at all.
A Better Government Association examination of the Park District’s distribution of security cameras in Chicago’s vast system of neighborhood parks reveals a tiny camera program with little money and riddled with inequity and neglect.
The BGA review — including available public records and interviews — also exposed disparities in where the cameras are installed. Park officials have cited lack of money to repeatedly deny residents’ requests to install cameras at parks situated in Black and brown neighborhoods, the BGA found. Meanwhile, they often opt to fund cameras in more affluent, white neighborhoods with fewer crimes.
Through interviews, the BGA found Park District officials denied camera requests for at least five parks with higher levels of reported crimes in 2021, all in Black and brown neighborhoods.
By comparison, the Park District has installed nearly 90 cameras in 16 parks since 2015, 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.
According to data provided by the Park District, nine parks in predominantly white neighborhoods with fewer crimes have cameras. Four parks have cameras in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and another three parks in mostly Latino neighborhoods.
Although some community groups like the idea of security cameras, some don’t. The use of 24-hour surveillance has come under fire by civil rights groups as a potential invasion of privacy.
Critics of the Park District interviewed by the BGA say in those instances where neighborhood groups request cameras, the deployment should not be discriminatory. They argue the Park District’s lopsided camera program is just one example in the city’s long history of discrimination and unfair policies favoring wealthier white residents over their traditionally underserved neighbors who most need the support.
“As we study the data about equity, it becomes clear that the Park District’s investment in programming — that one would hope serves communities that most need it — is least in African American communities,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, a group long critical of parks management.
Neither Mayor Lori Lightfoot nor her interim Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareño would agree to be interviewed for this report. Each of the parks supervisors in charge of the 16 camera-equipped parks also declined to be quoted.
Instead, Park District Communications Director Michele Lemons responded to some questions in an email, calling park safety of “utmost importance” and downplaying the significance of the district’s camera program in a larger arsenal of security measures: Police patrols, alarm systems, and partnerships with Chicago police and the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
“Security cameras on our buildings are just one measure of park security and do not reflect the comprehensive resources devoted to park security,” Lemons wrote. “The Park District is committed to keeping our parks safe and welcoming environments in all neighborhoods across the city.
“It appears the data you are referencing does not reflect all security cameras covering parks.”
Lemons declined to elaborate on whether the list of cameras she provided was incomplete, but it is true the city oversees massive — and controversial — network of law enforcement surveillance cameras deployed atop poles throughout the city. The city also has a program to loop tens of thousands of other security cameras into its network of surveillance.
Getting city officials to discuss the details of their respective camera programs is a challenge, the BGA found. Both have declined to provide specific details about the crime-fighting tools, how decisions are made regarding where they are located, and how and when they are monitored by security personnel.
Lemons said Parks District security personnel are “able to view feeds from OEMC cameras.” Although police officials won’t provide locations of their pod cameras, the BGA found none on neighborhood park grounds, although some are located over public streets just outside park boundaries.
Cameras in fewer than 3% of parks
Following a BGA request for public records, the Park District provided a list of its cameras and locations in neighborhood and community parks. Cameras have been installed in fewer than 3% of the nearly 600 such parks throughout the city. More than three dozen of the 90 cameras are located indoors, monitoring pavilions or recreational facilities, records show.
In most of the 16 neighborhood parks with cameras, the BGA found, reported crimes were negligible compared to parks with more crime reports. For instance, the 4.7-acre Wicker Park has 13 Park District cameras. In 2021, there were five reported crimes in the park.
Seven parks in neighborhoods of color do have cameras, records show. For instance, the 173-acre Garfield Park on the West Side has two cameras. Police reports indicate there were 33 reported crimes there last year, the highest number for any of the parks with cameras.
By contrast, there are no cameras at all in 13 of the 16 neighborhood and community parks with the highest number of reported crimes last year, almost all in less-affluent areas populated by people of color on the South and West sides.
Consider the 162-acre Douglass Park in North Lawndale, where neighborhood park activists say they have been unable to persuade city officials to install security cameras for more than three years. Considered a regional park because of its size, it had the highest number of crimes of all neighborhood parks in the city in 2021. All told, there were 55 crimes reported at Douglas Park last year, including 10 reported assaults with a deadly weapon.
In June, a 32-year-old man was rushed to St. Anthony’s Hospital after an altercation ended when he was allegedly struck over the head with a tire iron during a soccer game, according to police records.
In addition to Douglass Park, neighborhood groups at four other parks — Jackson Park, Calumet Park, Rainbow Beach Park and Washington Park, all among the 16 with the most reported crimes last year — told the BGA their requests for cameras and other security measures were denied based on budgetary concerns.
“Really, it’s an issue of equity and access,” said Brenda Nelms, a member of community group Jackson Park Watch.
At West Lawn Park in Southwest Chicago, a 26-year-old man living in a homeless shelter was threatened with a gun while spending the day with his son in November, one of three crimes reported there in 2021. It, too, has no cameras.
And at Riis Park in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, a 34-year-old bus driver called the police after he saw three teenagers shooting a handgun into open air, one of nine reported crimes there last year. Again, no cameras.
Records also show three park advisory councils raised money for cameras on their own, then turned over the funds to the Park District to purchase and maintain the cameras. All other cameras were purchased and are maintained by the Park District, records show. “The Park District approved the request and funds the maintenance and monthly service fees on these cameras,” Lemons said.
At Oz Park in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, advisory council Treasurer Judy Johansen said she and other council members hosted fundraisers in the community after a 2017 shooting just outside park grounds. Neighbors donated more than $5,000 toward the purchase and installation of two outdoor cameras. Last year, police reports say, there was one crime reported at Oz Park, a battery.
And at Clark Park in North Center, Chicago police officers assisted advisory council President Bill Donahue in purchasing a $7,000 camera that covers the park’s boathouse and a memorial to fallen CPD officer Richard Clark.
No reported crimes in most parks
For many, the topic of constant surveillance is a controversial one, including the ongoing debate over the sprawling web of cameras monitored by law enforcement, including both highly visible city-owned devices and privately owned lenses linked to the city’s surveillance network.
While many details of the camera program are shrouded in secrecy on grounds that disclosure would undermine police tactics, the ACLU of Illinois wrote last year that some estimates put the number of cameras in the city’s network upwards of 30,000.
Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said in 2010, “I don’t think there is another city in the U.S. that has an extensive and integrated camera network as Chicago has.”
A year later, the ACLU asked the city to institute a moratorium on expanding its surveillance system because of the unknown effects on the health of communities of color and the heightened stresses on relationships with police.
Today, some of those concerns remain.
“Some people really want strong police presence or park district presence, and some people don’t,” said Irizarry, of Friends of the Park. “In some communities, security is more about presence and community ownership.”
In 2021 Chicago police reported 1,411 crimes on park properties. A third of those crimes — ranging from petty theft to aggravated assault — happened in the city’s five largest parks where tens of thousands of tourists gather each year: Millenium Park and Grant Park, and the miles-long beach parks that sprawl along Lake Michigan’s shore and include the Lincoln Park zoo.
Crimes reported at neighborhood and community parks accounted for less than 2% of all crimes throughout the city in 2020, according to the most recent Chicago police analysis of annual crime data. The BGA found 74% of all city parks reported fewer than five crimes last year.
More than 360 neighborhood parks reported no crime at all in 2021. But park experts who study the community benefits of green space say even one violent crime incident is enough to scar safety perceptions among parents and other parkgoers, a stigma that can last years.
“If we improve the park[s], then we feel we improve the community that loves and cares for them,” said Willa Lang, executive director of the Chicago Parks Foundation, a park advocacy group traditionally supportive of Park District security initiatives.
In addition, many crimes in parks are never reported to police and therefore never show up in statistics. “A lot of times there may be gang efforts on every corner,” Lang said.
The Park District has spent at least $117,000 to a private security company — Active Alarms — for the installation and maintenance of cameras, according to invoice records. Most were installed beginning in 2018, records show.
From abandoned industrial complex to 21-acre park
Mercedes Alvarez grew up within a block of the contaminated acreage that would later become La Villita Park, walking home from school past the former industrial complex, long designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.
After years of cleanup and advocacy by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, the park — at the corner of Sacramento Avenue and 31st Street — was dedicated in 2014 at a price tag of nearly $19 million.
Alvarez said she has patrolled the grounds ever since.
“I know more than the park supervisor,” she said. “I have to tell them what’s going on here.”
Alvarez has worked alongside her friend Jacky Vazquez, a park organizer for LVEJO, to mitigate a growing problem with crime at La Villita Park for years.
“It’s been years since we asked about the cameras, but we’re still in the dark,” said Vazquez, who runs the Mi Parque program, organizing youth internship programs, training in community stewardship, conflict resolution and efforts to encourage alternatives to hyperpolicing. “There’s been people who ask for more cameras around the park. But when you hear that they don’t know who’s watching and don’t know if they work, it’s concerning.”
Alvarez and Vazquez said until they can shake loose more action from park officials, they will continue to do their best to patrol the grounds and work to prevent trouble.
“We want the park to be safe, not just for us but for our kids,” said Alvarez. “I love this park. When I die, I want my ashes spread here.”
BGA reporter Dan Hinkel contributed to this report.