Number of surveillance cameras continue to increase on University of Illinois campus; has surged to nearly 2,400

You are currently viewing Number of surveillance cameras continue to increase on University of Illinois campus; has surged to nearly 2,400Nicole Littlefield
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A steadily increasing number of security cameras have been used to solve hundreds of investigations on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus in the past decade.

Beginning in 2007, the University of Illinois and its police department initiated an ambitious program of installing surveillance cameras across campus. The first 13 security cameras were placed in 2008. The number increased to 200 in 2009, then to 400 in 2010.

By November 2022, the number had surged to 2,200 cameras. Today it is close to 2,400.

The University said it adds about 200 cameras annually and has spent around $4 million on security cameras since 2019, with the cameras costing between $300 and $3,000 and recurring costs for video storage, which varies depending on the camera price. 

With hundreds of cameras to keep track of, the University began using Milestone Systems, a provider of open platform video management software, in 2010 to manage the camera footage.

Before the police department switched to Milestone systems, university police officer Tim Hetrick said one detective had so many video managing programs on his computer that it couldn’t run anything else.

Patrick Wade, senior director of strategic communications for university police, said most of the cameras are “pan-tilt-zoom” cameras. 

“Those cameras can be manipulated remotely through Milestone so someone at the police department can move the camera to better view an incident if we become aware of something going on,” Wade said.

With over 50,000 students and 300 buildings spanning over 2,000 acres, the university police have a lot of ground to cover. Wade said the police department doesn’t have the time or resources to monitor crime daily, so the security cameras help solve and, hopefully, deter crimes. 

According to Wade there are currently 2,392 university-owned cameras around campus. Those include cameras that need maintenance or repairs, so about 2,375 cameras are currently operational.

The university will not release the locations of the cameras. However, the cameras are not difficult to find since most entrances to campus buildings have security cameras, and there are signs indicating if an area is under surveillance. There are various cameras facing the doors of popular spots, such as the Illini Union and Lincoln Hall.

With the number of cameras increasing, the concern about privacy has also been discussed. Ed Yohnka, ACLU Illinois director of communications and public policy, said in an interview that a 2011 house bill that would require agencies that own security cameras to annually disclose the number of cameras owned passed the Senate and House of Representatives, but was vetoed by the Illinois governor.

“We [ACLU] didn’t even try for the ‘tell us where they’re placed’ because we’re going to get ‘That’s a security concern,’” Yohnka said. “But the pushback was, the Illinois Department of Corrections have them and even if people know they have surveillance cameras that could cause a problem.”

The concern about maintaining an individual’s right to privacy continues to grow as technology improves. In 2015, Illinois Public Media wrote about debate over the license plate technology being used by police in Champaign. The technology can scan, mark, and record the position of a car within a fraction of second.

Cameras are sourced often to solve crimes

Police point out the value of the cameras in helping to solve crimes.

In the summer of 2017, security camera footage from the campus B-4 parking lot was used to investigate the kidnapping and murder of Yingying Zhang The security camera footage was not able to read the license plate of the black Saturn Astra that Zhang had entered, but the damaged hubcap on the car was key evidence that led to the FBI’s arrest of Brendt Christensen. 

Camera footage is held for 30 days and then is deleted, unless requested by legal counsel or chief of police. The police have 120 days with the security camera footage, and then it will also need to be deleted. The University maintains a log of everyone with access and who has accessed the camera footage and when. 

The cameras “are not actively monitored, except in a few rare cases during big events,” Wade said.

Following an incident at Red Lion bar in 2022 that went viral on social media, camera footage was obtained by CU-CitizenAccess in a Freedom of Information Act request last year, requiring use of specialized software to view and export. The film footage showed a woman unconscious on the sidewalk after a bouncer threw her to the ground after the woman punched the bouncer,

The cameras on campus use Scallop Imaging, which delivers full situational awareness with a constant 180° view and simultaneous zoom details in one standard video frame (providing situational awareness and image identification).

This technology has been beneficial in other crime investigations, Wade said, and security camera footage across Champaign and Urbana has been marked as evidence in many cases. Both university- and privately-owned cameras have been cited as evidence 1,340 times in at least 1,044 investigations during the past 11 years, data shows.

About 40%, or 541, of the video evidence uses had Milestone in the description.

Wade, who provided a database of the evidence tag query, said the results were approximate and don’t speak to the degree of helpfulness of the video:

“Generally speaking, if we placed security video into evidence, that means it was helpful in some way. But the significance of that evidence varies. There are many cases where the video evidence was the single most important piece of evidence that helped us to close the case, or where it provided a significant investigative lead that we otherwise would not have had. In other cases, the video simply supported other evidence that we already had – which is still helpful, but not always a make-or-break kind of thing,” he said in an email.

Unlike the university, the Champaign and Urbana police departments do not own security cameras. But Champaign County started a campaign where residents can register their home’s Ring security camera with the Champaign police.

When police begin an investigation they usually start by asking if anyone has recorded the event, or if there are security cameras nearby. Champaign police spokesperson Joe Lamberson said the camera registration allows police officers to do their job quicker. Instead of waiting until the next day to knock on doors and gather information, the police can use the list of registered security cameras and request to look at the footage.

“The individuals who own the camera decide whether they’re going to contact police back and notify us that they want us to come look at their video,” Lamberson said.

Although it is up to the camera’s owner to share the footage, the doorbell company, Ring, has partnered with over 400 police departments across the United States. 

“One of the things that is true about surveillance in most communities around the country and certainly here in Illinois, is that the level of surveillance is, to put it mildly, very opaque,” Yohnka said. “It is often really difficult and complicated to figure out, like are there security cameras? Are those cameras controlled by businesses or are they controlled by a government agency?”

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