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Future fuzzy for government use of public surveillance cameras

Demian Bulwa / SF Chronicle | July 23 2006

Police Capt. Bob Keyes spent a recent afternoon patrolling this Central Valley city with a keypad rather than a Crown Victoria.

"Can you read that?" Keyes asked. He had swiveled his office chair toward a television displaying the view from one of the more than 100 surveillance cameras in the city of 90,000, and then zoomed in on a small protest sign held by a woman at a downtown rally.

Toggling from a camera that bird-dogs downtown bars to one that scans a Target store parking lot, Keyes said, "This one was used earlier today to catch a theft suspect." Then -- click -- it was over to the skateboard park. "Mom and Dad can see if Johnny is or isn't doing what he should be," Keyes said, adding that the city might put that camera online.

That was only a taste. Extra eyes watch the jail, the schools, a walking trail, an art piece and the wastewater plant. Monitoring screens are in commanders' offices, at dispatch stations and inside each patrol car. Officers even use footage to assign blame in some traffic accidents.

Clovis' 5-year-old camera system, considered cutting edge by some and Orwellian by others, may provide something else: a picture of the Bay Area's future. Such monitoring is rare in the region, but probably not for long.

Thanks in part to money from anti-terrorism grants, San Francisco and several other Bay Area cities have started installing police cameras at high-crime locations, or places that are heavily trafficked or considered to be possible attack targets.

Surveillance technology "will become hand-in-glove to traditional policing," Thomas Nestel III, said in a telephone interview. Nestel is a Philadelphia police inspector who studied camera programs for his master's thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. "It will change policing like vehicles did."

Surveillance pervades American life -- cameras are in stores and airports, on trains and buses, even in office buildings. But the police cameras have stirred fresh debate between those excited about their potential to cut crime and critics who call them a costly form of Big Brother government that doesn't work.

Police say a camera's mere presence can deter criminals, while a crisp image can win a conviction. Police are asserting that they can catch crooks and respond better to emergencies by watching crime unfold in real time. They stress that the cameras have software that can block out spots where people still expect privacy, such as the windows of homes and hotel rooms.

But critics say there's no evidence to support spending public money on cameras instead of traditional crime-fighting measures such as community policing programs and extra cops and street lighting.

Police cameras "have the potential to eviscerate our privacy rights -- our right to go about our business without being monitored 24 hours a day," said Mark Schlosberg, police policy practices director at the Northern California office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "On a gut level, people think, 'This should work.' But it doesn't."

The debate is complicated by the scattered way in which systems are being implemented. Nestel's study of 20 police agencies using cameras found that few had written policies, formal training for users or methods to collect data revealing success or failure.

"This is moving so quickly that it's moving faster than the controls," Nestel said. "Not too many people are evaluating whether it succeeds. Nobody was able to tell me that. The overwhelming response I got was, 'The public loves it. The public thinks it's great.' "

Even Clovis, after five years, does not have guidelines enacted by its City Council for camera use. "That's happening as we speak," Keyes said. The city does not track data on the system's efficacy, and Keyes could not provide its cost.

Around the country, some police cameras are monitored live, others are not. Some cities link the cameras with those in private businesses. Many agencies have dipped into federal Homeland Security grants to pay for the devices, saying cameras can help shield sensitive sites and aid first-responders to a disaster or attack.

The trend is unmistakable in the Bay Area: San Jose is seeking four cameras downtown, including one on popular Fountain Alley. Oakland recently bought about a dozen and loaned them to International Boulevard merchants, who agreed to give footage to police investigating crimes. Pittsburg has installed 13 cameras, plus a live-monitoring room, which is not yet staffed. Another 13 cameras will soon be hooked up along the delta waterfront.

Albert Seeno Jr., a major developer in eastern Contra Costa County, is placing 32 cameras at four shopping plazas in Pittsburg; his firm will control them, but police can commandeer them in an emergency, said Capt. William Zbacnik.

Zbacnik said cameras have provided evidence in five incidents. Twice, he said, they revealed that teenage girls had fabricated stories about being sexually assaulted, which saved investigative resources.

In Richmond, officials said they have discussed placing cameras along Macdonald Avenue in a partnership with Target, which is building a 150,000-square-foot store on the thoroughfare. Target has also bought cameras in Clovis and Minneapolis and given them to police to monitor.

San Francisco is one year into a $500,000 program started by Mayor Gavin Newsom, under which 33 cameras have been installed at high-crime spots. The mayor recently budgeted $275,000 for 22 more.

But in a city wary of government intrusion, the cameras themselves are being closely watched. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who said the "jury is still out" on the devices, recently sponsored legislation mandating that the Police Commission take public comment before deciding whether to authorize each camera. Police would have to report on the cameras' effectiveness under the legislation.

San Francisco is uniquely passive among cities with police cameras. Officers don't monitor the cameras, and thus cannot steer them. They can view footage only if they believe a crime was caught on tape, inviting criticism from both sides of the debate: privacy advocates who don't want the cameras at all, and those who believe the cameras can't succeed unless someone watches what they are filming.

"A few things happened, nobody got caught, and people figured no one was monitoring it," said Beverly Rogers, who is raising three children in a Western Addition apartment near a camera at Buchanan Street and Larch Way, where pizza deliverers won't show up after dark because of the fear of crime. "If you're going to have them, monitor them."

The city announced its first camera-related arrest last month, in the shooting of a 13-year-old girl at a Bernal Heights housing project. Police have asked to view footage in 25 cases.

Allen Nance, who heads the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, said crime dipped 30 percent around two cameras on Buchanan Street in the 90 days after they went up last July. Nance said they have deterred criminals who know they are being watched in their "comfort zone."

Nance would prefer to allow police to control the cameras -- they are now operated by the Emergency Communications Department -- and to monitor them in real time. "Could the cameras be more effective?" Nance asked. "Yes, if we were utilizing them in ways others have found useful."

Clovis, where there are few qualms about cameras, is not San Francisco. Located northeast of Fresno, the city is conservative, with nearly twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats. It is relatively affluent and safe; there have been no homicides this year. Mayor Nathan Magsig, who has a master's degree in criminology, said residents "just don't tolerate crime."

But there's a simpler reason why Clovis is a surveillance leader: Its biggest employer is Pelco, the world's largest supplier of the cameras, which occupies a fast-growing campus dotted with American flags and 500 cameras.

Hundreds of scientists and engineers at the firm are working on advances such as facial recognition software, which attempts to match people to databases of suspects; asset monitoring, in which an object such as a valuable painting would trigger an alarm if moved; and motion analysis, in which a camera could, in theory, identify a car burglar in a parking lot by the way he approaches vehicles.

Pelco uses Clovis as a showpiece and a laboratory, and that's just fine with many residents. "I love it. If anybody's at my door trying to break in, it takes pictures of them," said Kendra Ellsworth, 54, the owner of Priss, a women's boutique on the downtown strip.

Across the street, at the 500 Club bar and cardroom, high school teacher John Smith, 53, said he wondered "how far this is going" and whether the cameras might allow for such abuses as racial profiling.

"I was raised in the '60s and '70s, and I don't like Big Brother much," Smith said. But he added, "If it can save lives, I'm for it."

The crime-fighting capacity of the cameras has not been proved anywhere, according to some experts. A 2005 study of 14 systems for the Home Office in Britain, where surveillance has been widespread for years, concluded that "most systems revealed little overall effect on crime levels."

In Clovis, Keyes said the cameras are "one of many things that contribute to the reduction of crime. ... But there's nothing other than anecdotal evidence to support that."

In one incident that Keyes said was not unusual -- and which he replayed for a reporter -- a security worker at Target reported a shoplifter. A Clovis dispatcher, quickly pulling up the live feed from a nearby camera, tracked the suspect based on the description from the store. The young man in a white T-shirt tried to drive away, but was promptly surrounded by police.

Soon, more than 60 patrol cars in Clovis will be outfitted not only with viewing screens but with a pair of wireless cameras -- one facing forward and the other backward. The goal is to allow beat cops, commanders and dispatchers to quickly view the scene and make tactical decisions.

On-board cameras may also scan nearby license plates automatically to see if they are linked to a crime.

Surveillance cameras do come with a catch, Keyes said: Although they are intended to deter criminals who never know when they are being watched, potential victims cannot make any assumptions.

"We don't have time to sit and monitor these cameras at all times," he said. "There should be no expectation from the public that people are watching."


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