Council Vote on Police Cameras Draws Scrutiny

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Police spokesman Norm Leong says the cameras wouldn’t be a cure-all solution to solve every case.  But he says the department’s excited about getting another tool in its kit.
Leong: “We believe it deters crime. We also know based on prior use of surveillance footage at both residences and businesses that it solves crime, because people have called in tips based on surveillance footage they’ve seen of someone committing a crime and recognize them.”
And while it’s too early in the process to say exactly where the cameras would go, police do have a rough plan in mind. The mobile systems would be used for high-profile events like the Tour of California bike race or a New Years’ Eve celebration. And the rest of the cameras?
Leong: “They’re gonna be visible in public areas where there’s high traffic, high crime or potential for terrorist-type acts.”
The city installed three cameras in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood earlier this year, though Leong says the police department hasn’t kept track of the results.
The Sacramento County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wants the city council to decline the grant. Chair Jim Updegraff says he’s very worried about an invasion of privacy – and he says the cameras don’t work anyway.
Updegraff: “If you’re waking down the street and somebody’s thinking about mugging you, crooks aren’t that stupid. They can see the camera. They’re not going to assault you. They’ll wait until you get to the next corner where there’s no camera, and then you’ll get assaulted.”
Updegraff points to a UC Berkeley study that says a similar program in San Francisco didn’t work out too well. Jennifer King is the university researcher who authored that study. She says the results are a bit more nuanced – but the cameras don’t offer any magical solution.
King: “We did find that they had some effect on property crime. We found that within 100 feet of the cameras – say, you would actually notice the presence of those cameras – those criminals were generally deterred by them. But with regards to things like violent crime, that camera system had no impact.”
That’s because violent crimes tend to be more impulsive, she says – so criminals are less likely to look around for a camera first.
King says if the system helps prevent even a single crime, the police department could feel it’s worth it. She also points out that simply having the cameras in popular tourist areas could make people feel safer. But she also warns of hidden costs like maintenance, and that it takes a lot of time to sift through hours and hours of footage.
Tuesday night's City Council vote is just the first step in the process – and the police department could not say when the cameras would hit the streets if they’re approved.