$100-million dollars. That’s the amount of money Cook County has been awarded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security since 2003 to protect its citizens in times of terrorist attacks or emergencies.
The grants are a direct result of the tragedy of 9/11.
But are we any safer? It depends on whom you ask.
Now Congressman Mike Quigley is asking an investigative arm of Congress to probe how approximately $43-million of that money has been spent.
At issue is Project Shield, a controversial program begun under the administration of the late County Board President John Stroger and continued by his successor and son Todd Stroger.
“I think the federal government has to investigate what’s happened with Project Shield so far and re-evaluate its effectiveness,” he said after writing a letter asking for the probe.
The County has, according to a Freedom of Information Act request, spent nearly $43-million to outfit suburban police cars with cameras capable of feeding back live video to a command center. During times of emergencies, the cameras are supposed to give first responders a better idea of what is happening on the ground.
Police cars in all 128 Cook County suburbs are supposed to be outfitted.
But Project Shield is 36% over budget from an original cost estimate and is not expected to be completed until 2011, three years from its original end-date, a NBC5/Chicago Sun-Times investigation found. Plus there remains a serious question as to how many suburban police departments will participate.
When terrorists struck in New York and Washington in 2001, a lack of immediate, accurate communication hampered first responders. Project Shield is Cook County’s answer to fixing that.
Project Shield has had a checkered history. It was to be completed in three phases at a cost of $31.5 million, according to a letter from the County to one of its vendors.
IBM was awarded the contract for Phases 1 & 2. In an August 7, 2006 press release Dan Coughlin, Executive Director of the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council, which oversees the grants, said the “system...has been extensively tested and is now operational in…27 municipalities.”
But two years later, after countless technical problems and after spending $26-million dollars, IBM was booted out. IBM declined a request for an interview.
According to Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, part of the initial failure was with the County’s IT Department. “This isn’t just giving everybody a MAC or a laptop to deal with this,” Suffredin said.
“This was going to be a complex task. And I think they didn’t negotiate these contracts well.”
Last year, Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls replaced IBM.
According to a County press release in July, 90 first responder vehicles now have cameras.
In Evanston, the just installed camera system that according to police is “so far, so good.” The same is true in Elmwood Park, Palatine, and Glencoe.
But some departments including those in Berwyn, Park Ridge, Norridge, Forest Park, Morton Grove, University Park and Tinley Park, have opted out or abandoned Project Shield for a variety of reasons, including cameras that were installed but did not work.
“Every municipality in the county was supposed to be involved,” said Quigley. “If you leave several out, if not half of them out, it’s useless.”
Two police cars in Oak Park have been outfitted, where Chief Rick Tanksley is a supporter “You would dispatch those two cars and I, removed from the scene, could have a clear view of what is occurring there and then make some valid decisions,” he said.
Last year, a spokesman for Johnson Controls said the cameras should be able to send back pictures “from a laptop in a vehicle traveling at very high speeds in transit from one end of the County to the other.”
But at a recent demonstration there was video distortion in the picture as a patrol car drove routinely down the street in Oak Park making it impossible at times to clearly see what was ahead.
A Cook County spokesperson declined to make those responsible for 0D Project Shield available for interviews saying the County did not think our report would be fair and balanced.
The bottom line is after millions of dollars have been spent, are people safer?
“I don’t know if we are safer,” said Chief Tanksley, “but I can say for Oak Park, I’m in a better position should an emergency occur to see remotely what is happening.”
Quigley believes any notion of being safer is simply an illusion. “We have given ourselves the feeling of being safer,” he said. “When you have corruption and you have incompetence dealing with Homeland Security, it is far worse because we are all less safe as a result.”