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Cameras to monitor crowds
Birmingham police say system will cut down on overtime, keep people moving.

The Detroit News | May 27, 2005

BIRMINGHAM -- This popular city shines like a beacon on hot summer nights, attracting crowds to its restaurants, bars and theaters.

While good for the city's economy, the crowds strain the police department's overtime budget, city officials say, as officers are called in to control the pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

Neighbors say they are sick of the congestion and the noise.

The city's solution to both the crowds and the overtime pay is a new set of surveillance cameras that will monitor downtown crowds starting in late summer. The cameras will be set up on Old Woodward near Merrill Street, and Old Woodward near Hamilton.

Police officials stress that the cameras are not being installed because of an increase in crime. This is just a better way to monitor crime without dipping into overtime, they say.

"We spent about $40,000 last summer for overtime on that detail," said Birmingham Police Chief Richard Patterson.

But emotions run high among residents and business owners -- pro and con -- about being watched.

"After 9-11, we all want to feel safer, but I'd want to know how long they're going to keep the tapes, who's allowed to view them and whether they could use the tapes against someone," said Shelli Weisberg, who has lived in Birmingham for 18 years.

Weisberg talks about the importance of trust between police officers and the community they serve.

"Residents want to be able to go to the police with problems, but if they feel they're being watched, and don't see them on the streets, that can damage the relationship," she said. "I'm happy to see police on the street as opposed to monitoring us through security cameras."

But Susan Stern, who owns Ribbons gift shop in downtown Birmingham and has lived in the city for 26 years, is grateful for the surveillance cameras.

"I think it's an excellent idea," Stern said. "There has been a lot of crime over the last few months -- a lot of holdups. So not only will it deter crime, but if something happens, there will be a camera there already."

Other cities facing large weekend crowds during the summer months, such as Ferndale and Royal Oak, do not have surveillance cameras, but have not ruled them out.

"We haven't considered the cameras, but might be very interested in them some time in the future," said Thomas Wightman, a deputy police chief in Royal Oak. "We will be watching to see how well it works in Birmingham."

Ferndale Police Chief Michael Kitchen said his department has not considered the cameras.

"But I don't think it's a bad idea," he said. "A lot of crazy stuff happens down there (in Birmingham), and it could help, depending on the technology of the camera."

Birmingham Police Chief Patterson insists there has not been a rash of crime in Birmingham creating a need for the cameras.

"This is not because of criminal activity," he said. "For the last couple of summers, we've been inundated with complaints from residents about the large numbers of people congregating downtown. ... We're looking for innovative ways to accomplish a level of security. But this is not meant as an anti-kid measure."

Patterson, who estimates the cameras may cost about $30,000 for both, said the cameras will not be there to take down license plate numbers. Birmingham had security cameras installed around City Hall after September 11, he said. Police cars also are equipped with video cameras.

"The cameras are there all around the City Hall area," Patterson said. "Dispatchers have the ability to glance up and keep an eye on them, but they don't sit there and focus in on them constantly."

He added: "If a dispatcher glances up and sees a bunch of people blocking an area, they can send an officer over to keep the crowd moving."

Clinton Baller, who has lived in Birmingham for 25 years, doesn't mind the cameras.

"I don't have a problem with them," he said. "As far as people thinking it would be like Big Brother, if you're walking down the street, you're in the public. I'm in that area a lot, and it is very crowded, but in general, I think people are very well behaved."

Birmingham Commissioner Tom McDaniel said all six commissioners voted in favor of the cameras during a recent meeting.

"I think it's a much more effective deployment of our limited resources," McDaniel said. "The crowds have put some pressure on the police, which has resulted in overtime. This is simply a way of monitoring what's going on and giving the police the ability to respond very quickly."

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911:  The Road to Tyranny