Daily Herald opinion: We should ensure highway cameras are only used to fight serious crimes
Two bills are headed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's desk that aim to provide significant help to authorities responding to or investigating crimes on Illinois expressways. Part of a pilot program, the laws reflect strong, well-intended legislation demonstrating a commitment from the state to try bold action to fight crime.
But their very existence also is a demonstration of their greatest risk, and that observation needs to be a consistent refrain as this test program proceeds.
The measures headed to the governor were supported by the Illinois State Police and the state attorney general, and Pritzker set aside $20 million in next year's budget to help fund them.
They add 21 counties -- including DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will in the Daily Herald circulation area -- to a pilot program introduced in 2020 to use license-plate reading cameras in response to growing cases of highway shootings. They also add several violent felonies to the list of crimes to which the cameras can be applied, and they push the end of the evaluation period to June 2025.
Again, all reasonable adjustments to a commendable goal -- reducing highway violence. An online tool created by the state police shows expressway shootings increasing from 51 in 2019 to nearly triple that number in 2020 and more than double that number -- 310 -- in 2021. So far, 73 cases have occurred this year, down by four compared to this time last year but still an alarming figure. Obviously, the issue deserves attention.
But Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican, described the lurking danger in a Capitol News Illinois report this week.
"Although these tools can provide some public benefit," Barickman said, "the risk is that they're susceptible to abuse and have a chilling effect on public life."
To recognize the senator's concern, one need look no further than the shenanigans that have sometimes occurred involving traffic cameras in local communities, a subject we discussed earlier this week.
Chicago Democratic Rep. Ann Williams, a sponsor of one of the bills expanding the pilot program, said she too is concerned about that risk.
"But targeted use of cameras that are limited in use and narrow in scope ,,, it's about violent crimes that concern people every day, and the way to hopefully address those," she told CNI.
So far, the plan is narrow in scope. And so far, it seems potentially beneficial. But good ideas have a way of creeping beyond their original intent. The actions approved this spring by overwhelmingly bipartisan majorities in both chambers obviously expand the scope and the targets of the original legislation. And, they seem consistent with constraints placed on the technology.
Assuring that continues, though, will require detailed data collection and broad analysis. We look forward to seeing those details and that analysis in three years.