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Police plan camera surveillance for high crime areas

Tuesday, March 4, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Reassured by their success in Europe and some large American cities, Austin police officials are looking to install surveillance cameras in several of the city’s “criminal hotspots” in order to more quickly respond to crime. However, at least one group is raising privacy concerns over how the system might be used.


Police Chief Art Acevedo told members of the Public Safety Task Force Monday that his department has identified four major hotspots in the city where it believes a camera surveillance system could help his officers significantly reduce crime.  The system will be monitored by police officers or other trained individuals, but will be able to alert those monitoring when a possible crime occurs.


“With the ability to monitor these areas, we can use cameras to automatically alarm us when certain activities take place,” he said. “We can program it to alert when someone leaves or enters an area, when a group of more than 20 people gather, or when someone falls down and is possibly injured or ill.”


Acevedo said his department has identified the areas around Rundberg Lane and I-35, 12th and Chicon, the Sixth Street district and East Riverside at Burton Drive for the cameras. The areas were chosen by their high crime statistics and complaints by area residents and other stakeholders, he said.


“I have observed these systems at work in some major European cities,” Acevedo said. “When terrorists attacked the London transportation system in June of 2005, they were able to identify and capture the members of the terror cell within a week. That’s because they had their pictures on surveillance cameras.”


The system would be wireless, and allow monitoring not only from a central location but also by officers in their patrol vehicles. Each node would have a camera with pan, tilt and zoom capabilities that could observe activity up to 300 feet away, day or night. All of the images captured by the cameras would be stored for a period of time.


However, Task Force Member Debbie Russell, director of the Central Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed a number of concerns about privacy. “How will the police monitor these images?” she asked. “And who will monitor them? Will it be uniformed officers, or civilians?” She also reminded Acevedo that certain activities by a camera could be construed as an illegal search.


Acevedo said his current plan was to use uniformed police officers who have been assigned to desk duty as the primary monitors, but that he would not rule out using other people. He emphasized that all monitors would have strict rules to follow.


“We will not be allowing them free reign,” he said. “They will be following strict guidelines. There won’t be any zooming in on a young lady just to look at her allowed.”


He said the recordings of the images would be audited periodically to ensure proper procedures are followed. He added that all areas under surveillance would be marked with signs informing people that they are in a “camera monitored zone.”


Acevedo initially said he planned to keep recordings of the images for seven days, assuming any need for them would become evident within that amount of time. However, some others were concerned that that might be too short a time, and keep defendants from getting copies of the tapes that might clear them.


Acevedo also said his department is currently looking for grants and private donations to fund the system, which would be funded initially outside of the city budget.


“We have a possible $300,000 grant available to us, and a possible public-private funding option we are considering,” he said. “I don’t look at this as an expense, but a way to make the force more efficient. We can use a system like this, or we can pay to hire more cops. Time will be the judge of how effective it is.”


He said the department plans to roll out the system in phases, monitoring only one or two areas at first to “work out the bugs.” He gave no date when the system might be implemented.

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