NEWS- Police-cam: Safety or Big Brother downtown?

Police say cameras will make the Mall safer before or after– but not during– a crime because they can't afford to monitor them real time.

A proposal to put 30 security cameras on the Downtown Mall has civil libertarians crying "Big Brother" and questioning claims that eyes-in-the-sky will make the Mall safer. Police contend the cameras will prevent and help solve crimes.

What security cams on the Mall will not do: send police to the rescue of  Joe Citizen while he's in the process of being beaten to a bloody pulp. "I'm not sure we'd ever have the capacity to monitor them," acknowledges Police Chief Tim Longo of the proposed $300,000 expenditure.

The April 16 slayings at Virginia Tech sent ripples beyond college campuses and "caused us to reassess City Hall, the annex, and Transit Center," says Longo. City Manager Gary O'Connell had asked police to look into surveillance cameras over the past three or four years, but up until now, the cost has been prohibitive. 

But with wireless technology bringing the cost down– and in the wake of the Tech tragedy– "If we're going to do it, now's the time," says Longo.

Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead, however, questions the impact of cameras on crime, noting that cameras simply move criminal activity to a different location. He also claims that cameras pose serious constitutional issues. He cites a government study in Great Britain, a county with four million cameras, 400,000 of them in London.

"They don't seem to work," says Whitehead. "Most criminals are not stupid. They plan things and say, 'I'll just go where there aren't cameras.' In Britain, their own government says they don't work."

A bigger problem for Whitehead is the long-term ideological issue. "People become accustomed to the government watching them," he says. "Everybody's a suspect in the cameras. Everybody."

Whitehead worries about government misuse. "If I'm out with my wife and we're disagreeing, the government doesn't have the right to read my lips. I have an expectation of privacy."

Au contraire, says Longo. 

"From a Constitutional perspective, what people expose to public view has no expectation of privacy," he says. "There's no constitutional implication– it's a policy issue."

Longo points out that in the private sector, citizens' images are captured several times a day on ATM or store cameras. "It's when the government is implementing such a system they become concerned," he says.

Longo hasn't seen the Great Britain study, but from his own experience in Baltimore and anecdotal evidence, he thinks cameras can result in "significant reductions in crime."

He stresses that proposed cameras address two separate projects: how to protect public buildings and how to provide security on the Mall. "This doesn't have to be one project. Council needs to have a thoughtful discussion," he says.

Surveillance cameras currently are not on the City Council agenda but are likely to come up in the next couple of months.

Any decision on cameras, says City Councilor Kevin Lynch, "should be careful not to overreact and take away privacy in the name of security."

 He mentions recent incidents– mall-goers being beaten in late-night muggings by gangs of teens– in which cameras could have been helpful in preventing or solving the crimes. "The key is under what circumstances would cameras be used and under what circumstances would the tapes be retrieved," says Lynch. He suggests if cameras are installed, search warrants should be required to view them except in emergency cases.

"We don't want law enforcement on fishing expeditions," Lynch says. "Human nature being what it is, it's only a matter of time until something gets abused."  

Whitehead, too, is worried about potential future misuse. "I think the long-term ramifications are Orwellian," he says.

Hiring two or three police officers is a cheaper alternative than buying 30 cameras, Whitehead insists. "I'm all for being safe," he says. "I feel safer seeing police than being watched."