Surveillance cameras fight crime, raise privacy questions

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Surveillance cameras fight crime, raise privacy questions
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A security camera mounted on a bright orange trailer and flanked by solar panels: not the most stealthy crime-fighting tool, but authorities say they work even if theyre also raising eyebrows.

The Alexandria Police Department received two of the mounted cameras through a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments grant within the past year, officials said. The ungainly devices allow local authorities a window into neighborhoods without dispatching plainclothes or uniformed police officers.

Let’s say I had a particular spot that kept getting hit with people breaking into cars, said Capt. Tammy Hooper. I have limited resources to have people out there all the time and the camera could be used for the purpose of being able to monitor an area without having an officer there.

A mobile real-time video camera also gives the department an intelligence advantage. From the safety of an office across town, officers could do a risk assessment of the scene before involving themselves, Hooper said. 

Officers deployed the devices earlier this year while investigating a rash of burglaries and break-ins around Del Ray and Rosemont. If the cameras dont catch criminals, theyre just as effective at deterring them, said Deputy Chief Hassan Aden. 

While it is covert, [it is also] overt, he said. Even the criminal element, they do see it It is intended to be both, to let people know were paying attention, that were here if you commit a crime.

Beyond monitoring crime, the cameras are good for traffic studies, according to Hooper. If she gets complaints about, say, cyclists disrupting traffic during the morning rush hour at a specific intersection, she might employ one to determine the extent of the problem. They might later post an officer there to follow up with offending cyclists or motorists, she said. 

Its a short-term tool to nip trouble in the bud, Hassan said. 

Surveying, not spying

Hassan has received more than a few phone calls from curious residents inquiring about the praying mantis-like camera mounts. Hes quick to point out the department isnt interested in spying on citizens, just keeping an eye out for previously diagnosed problems.

We use them in areas that are hard hit; we dont put them out there if we dont have anything going on, he said. I think people are concerned with privacy, but this is certainly not that. We usually have them on main thoroughfares and in response to emerging patterns of crime.

For Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Unions Virginia chapter, the practice raises policy, if not legal, questions that few are discussing. The proliferation of cheap, portable cameras has led to an expansion in the way local authorities use them, he said. 

In some countries, like the United Kingdom, its hard to escape the ever-present gaze of surveillance cameras, Willis said.

Is this what we want? Are we moving toward being a society where every move you make outside your home can be followed by the government? he said. Its an important question, but one people arent asking. Its simply happening.

Willis wont weigh in on whether its a right or wrong use of modern technology, though hes skeptical the cameras do anything more than move crime from one neighborhood to another. The morality issue is up to society, he said, but the public policy discussion needs to happen now rather than later.  

And its not just local police departments Willis worries about.

Its not just the cameras, its every other way both the private and public sector is able to track our movements, he said. We think theyll be a tipping point where the alarms start to go off. In the meantime, organizations like us spend a lot of time trying to educate people.

Other people can worry about that

Emily Shaw remembers officials mention they planned to deploy the mounted cameras around Rosemont and Del Ray during a community meeting following a string of burglaries in her neighborhood. Shaw, a victim of the crime wave, was impressed by the police departments response, particularly with the cameras. 

I think its a great thing, she said. Im impressed the police department got them and put them up. I would imagine its a [crime] deterrent.

There was no big announcement, just a mention during discussion of the recent rise in crime, she recalled. For Shaw, preventing crime outweighs any privacy concerns she might have held.

Other people can worry about that, I just didnt want anyone kicking in my door again, she said. 

Shes not the only one more concerned with security than privacy.

People tend to think about their own particular security [rather] than this growing notion of big brother, said Willis.

George Orwell’s faceless, omnipotent shadow government is exactly the last thing Hooper or Adan want residents thinking of when they catch sight of the department’s mounted cameras. While they store several days worth of video giving officers time to check back on the data if a crime has been reported it automatically rerecords over itself. 

Theres no giant database where authorities are storing hours of video, Hassan said. 

And it’s not clear the department could get a warrant based on what they’ve seen on the camera. Best case scenario, officers could cross-reference the description of an individual caught breaking the law on film against someone suspicious they’ve physically picked up nearby, Hassan said. 

Its not intended as long-term surveillance or anything like that, he said. It’s really kind of a quick short-term tool we have instead of posting three or four officers in plain clothes.

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