Crime-busting cameras: a US-city experiment

Sitting in Bellingham Square, hub of this city just north of Boston, Philip Quaglione remembers when a surveillance camera hung here at Washington and Broadway.

Its pole was knocked down several years ago, he says, either accidentally or by someone who didn't like the unblinking eye.

Now, surveillance cameras are coming back. In mid-July, Chelsea, Mass., hopes to throw the switch on a quarter-million-dollar system of 27 digital cameras with the capacity to monitor and record activity in any of its public spaces, says Jay Ash, city manager. His hope: that the system, which has cut crime in Chicago, will do the same in this high-crime city of 36,000 packed into less than two square miles.

Other small cities have similar aims. Officials in Schenectady, N.Y., reportedly plan to have eight cameras trained on the city's main commercial zone by fall. State funds will be used.

Chelsea's ally is the US government, which will add seven more cameras in a shared-feeds arrangement that has city officials encouraged, civil libertarians concerned, and some residents wondering how electronic policing and a federal presence will affect daily life.

The federal government is involved because a few Chelsea landmarks have special post-Sept. 11 significance. The Tobin Bridge, a major gateway into Boston, plants its northern footings here. Tanks of liquefied natural gas huddle down by the Mystic River.

Anika Hobbs, helping a friend load a car on Winnisimmet Street, says new cameras will do little to make her feel safer from terrorism. While she supports efforts to curb crime, Ms. Hobbs calls the use of terrorism concerns as a reason to boost surveillance "an excuse, especially in a city like Chelsea," with its high minority population.

Others differ. "The more [monitoring] the better," says David Flores, a teen who points to a spot a half-block away where he says a fatal stabbing occurred earlier this month.

Public-safety meetings, attended by residents and local businesses, will help determine where the city's cameras are aimed, says Mr. Ash. (Locations are as yet undisclosed, says Frank Garvin, chief of police, who maintains that the ambiguity effectively increases the cameras' value as a deterrent.)

Ash credits Washington with a new spirit of cooperation concerning the federal cameras. Chelsea is part of a nine-member cluster of communities called the Metropolitan Boston Homeland Security Partnership.

"What the federal government seems to be telling us is, 'We want you to use this equipment for other purposes as well ... but understand that [its] primary role is homeland security,' " says Ash.

"We have at least 10 places around the nation that ... are part of a pilot program," says Michelle Petrovich, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. Ms. Petrovich will not confirm that Chelsea represents one such program. Instead, she describes them collectively.

"[Federal cameras] feed into the local emergency operations centers, for example," she says. "It's intended to give a larger view for state and local law enforcement.... [The feed] goes into our Homeland Security operations center as well, so we have an equal view."

Testing the limits?

Ash says the city would probably not retain digital images for more than 30 days. He says police officers might eventually be able to call up views from any of the cameras through the laptop computers in their cruisers.

But civil liberties groups worry about the "federalization" of local police and the potential for abuse of a growing observational power.

"Where there's a human being in the loop, there's the potential for abuse," says Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Ms. Rose - who says the ACLU is still looking at the Chelsea case - says the legal limits of close new surveillance have not yet been tested in court. She wonders, citing an extreme example, whether a private journal being read in a public space could be discerned by increasingly high-tech cameras.

"We're coming up with protocols to make sure that those who are viewing the cameras are doing so for lawful purposes," says Chelsea's Ash. "And we are putting in place limitations on who has access to the images."

Despite signs of interagency cooperation, the future control of digital image banks remains in question, others say.

"Sharing is political," says Michael Rogers, president of Oracle Surveillance Systems in Baltimore, a $2 million-a-year firm that contracts with several government agencies. His company recently installed monitoring cameras at traffic lights in Fairfax, Va.

"Then the police wanted the feed," says Mr. Rogers. "The traffic-and-signal people didn't want to give the police the power to control anything."

Big business or Big Brother?

Perhaps the most controversial area of monitoring is the proposed inclusion of private-sector cameras. Many cities already have thousands, and demand for electronic-security products is projected to grow 9 percent a year through 2008 to $15.5 billion, according to Freedonia Group, a research firm.

Video related spending, $3 billion of that total, has notched the sharpest annual growth rate, nearly 13 percent.

"We had a discussion with members of the Chamber of Commerce about their own internal systems," says Ash. "We're not sure about the links right now, but ... we're sure they're going to be available tomorrow."

But many of the constitutional protections that Americans have regarding personal information in government databases do not apply where proprietary, private-sector data is concerned, says the ACLU's Rose. That, she says, could lead to their public-sector partners watching individuals without probable cause.

"We're not Big Brother," says a Chelsea police officer who asks not to be named. "If technology enhances our ability to fight crime, that's a good thing."

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