CHICAGO — Police across Illinois could use drones to monitor crowds at sporting events, music festivals and other large gatherings under legislation the state Senate approved Wednesday.
Supporters including Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office favor giving authorities the tool to try to ensure public safety at crowded events, but opponents like the American Civil Liberties Union say putting drone cameras in the sky would be a major invasion of privacy.
The proposal comes in response to the mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music festival last fall. Democratic state Sen. Martin Sandoval of Chicago noted the shooter had first rented rooms at Chicago's Blackstone Hotel overlooking Grant Park during the Lollapalooza music festival but never showed up.
"I don't want Chicago to be the next Vegas-style outdoor terrorist attack," Sandoval said.
Under the legislation, police departments could use drones to monitor public or private events of more than 100 people. The devices could be used to track crowd size and movement, as well as identify criminal activity and figure out how many officers should be on patrol.
Senators moved the bill to the House on a 36-2 vote, with six voting "present."
The measure amounts to an expansion of how police departments would be allowed to use drones four years after lawmakers first put restrictions in place. Currently, police can use them in certain circumstances, including when there has been a threat of a terror attack, a natural or public health disaster, or to find a missing person.
The ACLU has compared the possibility of allowing police to survey demonstrations to the Red Squads of decades ago, when police gathered and kept intelligence on protesters thought to be communists.
Karen Sheley, the Illinois ACLU's director of police practices, said the organization is especially concerned with the potential for police to use facial recognition technology and store images on the drones. She said the threat could be a deterrent for people who wish to exercise their right to free speech through protest.
"If you step back and just picture it: You're in a crowd, you look up, and you see a number of law enforcement drones taking your image, scanning your face, potentially putting you on a list -- that's frightening," Sheley said. "And it discourages people from engaging in the kind of First Amendment activity that we think is very critical during these times."
Emanuel spokeswoman Julienn Kaviar said in a statement that the city met with the ACLU and used the organization's input "with the goal of balancing privacy rights and ensuring the safety of those attending large-scale events in Chicago."
The measure would require law enforcement to provide reports about the time, date and location a drone was used.
"This update simply allows (the Chicago Police Department) to monitor and secure large-scale events where a legitimate public safety interest exists in a more efficient manner, as we do currently with the existing security camera network," Kaviar said.
Democratic state Sen. Kwame Raoul spoke out against the bill during debate on the Senate floor, saying some of the language "remains vague" enough to cause concern over how law enforcement would actually be able to use it. Raoul, who is running for attorney general, voted "present."
The bill is one of several lawmakers are considering this year that highlight the continuing conflict between privacy and public safety in a rapidly changing technological age. Another would ensure it's legal to use motion-activated video systems that begin recording people when they ring a doorbell.
Now, it's a low-level felony in Illinois to secretly record audio of a person without their consent, though doorbell cameras might be OK because they're typically in plain view. Sponsoring Rep. Jaime Andrade Jr., a Chicago Democrat, said he introduced a bill to head off any possible legal problems for people using those devices, saying they should have a right to protect their homes.
Andrade said he started to notice more of the intercomlike cameras in his district when he was going door-to-door on the campaign trail. His plan has been approved by the Illinois House and awaits further review by the Senate.
In other action Wednesday, senators approved a measure backed by Emanuel to crack down on people who commit carjackings. The idea follows a surge in vehicle thefts across the city.
The legislation is aimed at closing what Emanuel's office considers a loophole in existing law. In order to be charged with a felony, a person in possession of a vehicle has to know it has "been stolen or converted." It's often difficult to prove because those caught with vehicles that have been carjacked often claim they didn't know it was stolen. That means most people caught with stolen cars face a misdemeanor charge of trespassing.
The proposal passed by the Senate on Wednesday would allow officials to consider "surrounding facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the vehicle or essential part is stolen or converted" when pursing charges. The idea is to have more accountability for those responsible for carjackings.
Another measure that cleared the Senate would prevent the state from suspending someone's professional license for falling behind on student loan payments. Supporters including Attorney General Lisa Madigan say it doesn't make sense to limit someone's ability to earn a living while also asking them to pay off debt.
Current law allows for someone's professional license to be suspended or revoked for falling behind on loan payments for dozens of professions, including teachers, engineers, veterans and therapists.
The Senate also approved a bill to make lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender history mandatory in public school education. Advocates say the proposed changes are part of a broader push for LGBT civil rights, while opponents argue curriculum decisions should be left to local school districts.