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Coming to your neighborhood in VA:  Surveillance cameras

Town Talk | June 16, 2005
By Mandy M. Goodnight

Somebody could be watching you from above Alexandria's neighborhoods if Police Chief Daren Coutee has his way.

The chief is exploring the idea of putting cameras, which would record video footage and photos, in different parts of the city as a way to combat crime.

"We have to get into the 21st century, the criminals are," Coutee said Wednesday.

Modernizing is one thing, but invading a person's privacy is another, Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Joe Cook said.

Such cameras are creeping the community closer to a Big Brother society, Cook said.

No official decision has been made on if and when the cameras would start recording in Alexandria, and the city doesn't even know how many cameras would be purchased.

Each camera costs between $500 and $5,000, not including installation costs, Coutee said. The chief is searching for grant money to offset the cost to the city.

A demonstration on possible camera options is being planned and will happen within the next two weeks, the chief said. Coutee is working with G&A Communications and ZYcom Surveillance of Dallas.

Gerald Alexander, who owns both companies, said Wednesday he has met with Coutee and is selecting potential cameras that fit the city's need. His company is looking at the Panasonic WV-NW474S as the surveillance camera for Alexandria.

Like Coutee, Alexander said he is continuing to do homework for the city.

The chief would like the cameras to be portable and not focused in one neighborhood. The cameras would be moved every 30 days to neighborhoods where complaints have come in. Some of them might have controlled movement from within the police department.

Coutee foresees the cameras being used to catch drug dealers, prostitutes and burglars.

The department has received a rash of vehicle-theft complaints in the La. Highway 28 West area. Coutee said the cameras would be perfect for that area to try to catch those responsible.

Coutee's plan is to mount the cameras in discreet locations, making them as out of reach as possible for potential vandals and thieves. Each camera is bulletproof and weatherproof.

The cameras transmit video back to the police department where an officer will monitor it 24 hours a day via computer.

"With the technology available, we should use it to catch criminals," Coutee said. "Criminals are advancing with the times, and we need to stay ahead."

Cook, however, disagrees.

He said there has been no evidence that proves the video cameras stop crime and even noted some cities, like London, saw some violent crimes increase after cameras were installed.

Cook suggested the department use the money to invest into more manpower and community-relation efforts rather than technology that encroaches on the public's rights.

This is "reckless gambling of precious privacy rights," Cook said. "We should not be spied upon by the government."

Coutee said his department does not plan to intrude on anyone's privacy.

"We are not going into anyone's living room," the chief said.

Unlike the intersection cameras Coutee has suggested, the city doesn't need state approval for this program. There are already cities in Louisiana using the cameras.

Shreveport began a camera program in 2003. Police spokeswoman Kacee Hargrave said Wednesday that most people don't know the cameras exist, however, the department does run into problems with moving it without anyone noticing. The camera is mainly used for surveillance.

The Shreveport Times reported in September 2004 that the surveillance camera had led to 34 arrests and the seizure of more than $30,000 worth of drugs.

New Orleans has three dozen cameras up and has a goal of having 1,000 rolling, said Police Capt. Marlon Defillo. He said the city has seen a positive impact, and the cameras have at least twice been used in making an arrest. The city installed the cameras last year.

Alexandria's police department has used cameras for narcotics investigations, but the cameras belonged to the federal government. The city has surveillance cameras surrounding the department's Bolton Avenue headquarters that send images to several computers within the department.

City Council President Charles F. Smith Jr. is aware of the chief's idea and likes it. He hears complaints routinely about drug dealers on street corners, but when police get there the suspects are gone.

"We want to get crime down in the city," Smith said. "We don't want residents to be prisoners in their own homes. I think this will help our police department and our community."

Alexandria resident Earl Cross Sr. isn't against high-tech equipment. The president of the Lower Third Neighborhood Watch said he thinks the equipment can't replace community policing.

"It doesn't help if the officers don't stop and talk to people," he said. Cross also wonders how police will identify suspects caught on camera.


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