'Virtual policing' the new rave, but does it work?

Dec 19 2011 - 3:29pm

A growing list of communities is embracing virtual policing, but security experts disagree on whether such real-time cameras actually deter and solve crimes or are a needless intrusion and waste of money.

A unanimously supportive Moreno Valley (Calif.) City Council praised the technology as a way to protect its 197,000 residents and improve their quality of life. The Police Department, which will monitor about 100 cameras at more than 30 locations, believes the system will help reduce crime throughout the city's 52 square miles.

"I want the bad guys to know someone is watching," said Peter Cervantes, a resident who spoke in favor of surveillance cameras.

Cameras add more eyes at a much lower cost than extra patrolmen, said Moreno Valley Police Chief John Anderson. His department will deploy two people as monitors at a time, including injured officers on light duty and volunteers.

Not everyone finds these additional prying eyes worthwhile.

"We believe surveillance cameras are ineffective and a waste of money," said John Verdi, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. "They raise a host of privacy risks and they're prone to abuse."

What's more, the presence of cameras simply shifts crime into adjacent neighborhoods where there is no surveillance, he said.

In September, the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C., concluded from its study of surveillance systems that cameras were beneficial and cost-effective in communities where they are actively monitored.

Nancy La Vigne, the Institute's director and lead researcher, also said that the best surveillance systems have enough cameras to detect crimes in progress and a trained staff to investigate them after the fact.

Occasionally there are anecdotal cases about footage from public video surveillance being used to solve a crime, said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. Although cameras seem to deter nuisances such as public urination, littering and misuse of disabled parking passes, there is no study showing the devices' measurable effect on deterring crimes on public streets, he said.

Redlands, Calif., which has installed 130 devices since 2007, is testing the use of a surveillance camera in its city-owned airplane.

Desert Hot Springs, Calif., is asking every new business to install surveillance cameras that can be linked into the city's $1.2 million system of 30 cameras put in 1 1/2 years ago, said Police Commander Kate Singer.

Redlands also organized a citizens' privacy council to head off any abuses of civil rights. At bimonthly meetings, citizens and city officials discuss concerns and trouble spots for future camera deployment.

After closely studying Redlands' system, Moreno Valley officials plan to set up a citizens' advisory committee, open to everyone, to dispel Orwellian fears of a "Big Brother" mentality.

"With transparency, residents will see this as good thing for the city," Anderson said.

Camera systems offer a variety of software. Some can read license plates. Others can help police detect and locate gunshot sounds.

The citywide network also will be able to integrate with cameras in place at businesses, banks, malls and schools, with their consent, Anderson said.

(Contact Laurie Lucas at llucas@pe.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)


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