The History of Police Observation Devices (PODs)

The idea to have video surveillance of Chicago streets that were experiencing high-crime rates was a concept originally developed by Chicago Police Department street officers. In July of 2003, the Chicago Police Department unveiled a revolutionary pilot program using specially developed and customized technology aimed at reducing crime in Chicago’s most violence prone communities. This technology used remote-controlled and viewable cameras called Police Observation Devices – commonly referred to as PODs – positioned to view and record potential crime in high-risk areas.

With each POD equipped with flashing blue lights on top, trademark checkerboard markings of the Chicago Police Department, and a large Chicago Police logo, these cameras were designed to ensure that their highly visible presence would inform the public that the area was under police surveillance.

PODs were integrated into ongoing Department crime-fighting initiatives and proved an effective component in its efforts to disrupt drug and gang activity. One particular mission produced interesting results, “Operation Disruption” which was initiated in Summer 2003, incorporated placing surveillance cameras with zoom and 360 degree rotation capabilities in these high-crime areas.

At the center of the Operation Disruption pilot, there were 30 PODs. These portable units were mounted on city light poles on the public way. Each unit was equipped with the ability to capture criminal activity blocks away. The use of PODs in this manner was specifically aimed at reducing violent crime and narcotics activity by disrupting illegal narcotics operations –– the lifeblood of any gang. By hitting drug dealers and gang-bangers in their pocketbooks, the Department planned to drive these criminals out of business and off the street corner.

The goal in using these surveillance cameras in Operation Disruption was to create a visible crime deterrent in communities that have experienced a high incidence of violent crime.

PHASE I : The First Generation

Since the inception of PODs, there have been several phases of structural upgrades and expanded capabilities. During Phase I, POD video was transmitted to camera control cases assigned to officers in the field. Officers manipulated surveillance equipment from remote locations through the use of a portable terminal equipped with a monitor and joystick. With the joystick, officers could pan 360 degrees and zoom in on specific types of public criminal activity.

Each POD was fully integrated with the Department’s award-winning information technology system “CLEAR”—the Citizens and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting suite of applications. They were also equipped with night vision capability which enabled them to operate 24 hours a day in all weather conditions. The exterior was constructed of lightweight, bulletproof materials and coated with a highly reflective exterior to maximize visibility. Video generated within the POD system captured reported crimes and were preserved for investigative purposes.

PODs added another strategy that the Chicago Police Department would use to reduce violent crime in Chicago. These cameras were innovative in that they allowed the Department another set of eyes to watch a neighborhood, assist officers in the field, and reduce the need to deploy additional officers to an area unless necessary.

The use of PODs during Operation Disruption was intended to work in concert with all other Department violent reduction strategies. Still, statistics showed the use of POD technology had been a very effective tool in the fight against gangs, guns and drugs. The Department looked at crime incidents and calls for service in the areas immediately adjacent to the PODs. While narcotic-related calls declined by 76%, serious index crimes declined by 17%, while non-index, quality-of-life crimes declined by 46%. Focusing on just narcotic-related crime revealed a decrease of 76%. At the same time, narcotic-related arrests declined 3.3% on beats where PODs were located, but increased 151.7% on the beats immediately surrounding the POD beats. This demonstrated that the Department was able to relocate mobile resources to new areas when gang members tried to shift their territories to outlying allies and blocks. These statistics proved useful when the Department decided to expand the program.

PHASE II: The Second Generation of Police Observation Devices

Given the success of the pilot program, in September 2003, Mayor Daley announced that a new phase of PODs would be deployed throughout the City. Subsequently, the number of PODs increased from 30 to 80 by December 2003. Some of the new second generation PODs were also equipped with technology to detect gunfire. Using wireless technology, these units transmitted gunshot alerts, as well as the usual video images, directly to the City’s Emergency Management and Communications Center, thereby providing crucial intelligence on criminal incidents involving guns. Several of the 30 existing PODs were also upgraded with the same technology during that time period.

While the Phase I POD introduced in June 2003, was designed to capture the Public’s attention, the PODs of Phase II became more sophisticated. The Phase II PODs installed in December 2004, had wireless capabilities that allowed transmission to several monitoring locations, including the control devices in the field, District stations, the Crime Prevention and Information Center (CPIC) at Police Headquarters , and the City’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications Center (OEMC). During this time period, all Phase I PODs’ functions were upgraded to wireless capability as well.

The Phase II PODs, as well as the current POD systems, were designed to be moved or relocated. Police officials continually analyze crime data and other intelligence to determine where the PODs should be deployed. During Phase II the Department began moving the units more frequently to aid officers throughout the city. Mayor Daley summed it all up by saying, “This new equipment has proven to be a strong deterrent. Through a combination of good police work, new technology used in Operation Disruption, and community involvement, we can continue to make our children and our neighborhoods safer.”


The Phase III Hybrid PODs were installed in September 2005 and have the same capabilities as Phase II PODs. Phase III Hybrid POD cases are constructed of non-ballistic housing with a CPD star and checkerboard. These are smaller, less overt cameras, had the capability to disengage the flashing blue lights atop the devices.

The first Phase IV PODs, also called Micro-PODs, were installed in June 2006. The Micro PODs can be retrofitted for installation on rooftops and are comprised of two types of specially operated cameras: the rooftop mount camera and the tower/high-rise mounted camera. Rooftop mount cameras can also be relocated. Images from both types of cameras are wirelessly recorded on a centralized server. These cameras have no CPD police markings, optional flashing blue lights and are exclusively wireless.

Safe Zone PODs

Crime data information provided by Chicago Police Department officers identified hot-spots in several Chicago area schools. In 2006, funding for a pilot program that uses technology and police patrols to improve safety of students in and around “safe zones”, was allocated by the Illinois Board of Education. The Students First Safe Passage Pilot Program enabled the Department to begin installing POD cameras at 20 Chicago high schools in January 2007. These PODs monitored safe zones which included areas directly adjacent to schools, such as neighboring parks, bus stops, and other high traffic areas, where crime incidents involving students were likely to occur. As of February 2008, the number of PODs installed to monitor these safe zones totaled 105.

The Department also implemented vehicle and foot patrols to each school and designated safe zones during dismissal time. This combined approach works to ensure students safety by providing physical as well as visual patrol through the use of the PODs.

The monitoring of POD video in the safe zones are conducted by officers within each school via computer web based application, as well as personal data terminals (PDT’s) in the vehicles of selected school unit officers who patrol the area. This video surveillance is also viewable to all locations that the PODs wirelessly transmit to, including officers in the District, the Crime Prevention and Information Center (CPIC) at Police Headquarters, and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Who’s Watching?

pod_controlcenterPOD video transmission is available through selected PDT’s and a Department web application that allows live broadcast on any computer. Through this web based application, officers can control POD viewing capabilities by zooming in or out, or rotating the camera, to increase and direct viewing of a targeted area.

POD video is monitored by officers in District stations, by PDT’s of selected school unit officers patrolling POD areas by vehicle, officers at the Crime Prevention and Information Center and personnel at the City’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications Center (OEMC). The camera locations are integrated with 911’s Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. When calls for service in the area of a POD are received, the call description and nearest POD location are displayed to the crime detection specialists enabling them to immediately dispatch units to areas where a crime has been detected. OEMC personnel also view targeted areas as requested by police. POD cameras are also monitored by gang/tactical officers, and are used in coordination with other violence reduction missions. Officers can watch the POD video, make arrests and can inventory the video footage for later use in prosecution of the offenders.

What are PODs Used For?

Sergeant Gina Dwyer – “When we do reverse stings, we can not only watch crime conditions, but we can also keep an eye on our officer’s safety.”

POD camera surveillance is a tool the Department uses for:

  • Crimes in Progress
  • Evidence
  • Identification of Offenders
  • Quality of Life Observation: Drinking and Gambling on the Public Way
  • Reverse Stings
  • Police Safety and Integrity
  • Gang Loitering
  • Narcotic Operations
  • Directed POD Missions

POD camera surveillance is also used in conjunction with the following Department violent crime initiatives:

  • Targeted Response Unit Missions
  • Area Gang and Narcotic Teams
  • CPD/ATF Firearms Teams
  • Street Corner Conspiracies
  • Operation Double Play
  • Operation Disruption
  • Project Safe Neighborhood
  • Expanded Gang/Drug Loitering Hot Spots
  • Gang Strategy
  • Curfew Missions

The POD Retrieval System

Maintenance and control of PODs is conducted through the POD System application. This application records POD locations, and logs maintenance as well as any other requests for services relating to a POD. The system also provides statistics regarding POD use, inventory of requested video images, and repair/maintenance logs. It provides at-a-glance graphs and pie charts for quick review of all POD related data requested.

Aldermanic PODs

Chicago Alderman have the ability to purchase POD cameras through the Neighborhood Menu Program, for use in their wards for surveillance of target areas of criminal activity on the public-way. Alderman can also decide if PODs located within their wards that were purchased under this program, should be relocated to other locations within their ward boundaries in order to maximize crime reduction.

There are several conditions to be met before a POD can be installed on the public-way. Several types of analysis must be conducted to ensure proper location of PODs. These include:

  • A Crime Analysis of the location where the POD will be situated
  • A Technical Analysis to ensure the PODs functionality at the designated location (i.e. a reliable power source).
  • A Structural Analysis must be performed to ensure the POD can be securely attached to a designated structure