Nearly sunk, West Bank’s public safety cameras get OK

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The street is marked with chalk, but not for a homicide. Chalk marks the spots where public safety cameras will soon be installed in Cedar-Riverside. After nearly two years of surveying residents and business owners on the West Bank, feasibility studies and fundraising, the public safety camera system will soon be extended to the West Bank from the existing system in downtown Minneapolis. The cameras are likely to be in place within two months.

The City Council voted 11-1 in July to approve a proposal to enter into a contract for Unisys to install seven public safety cameras in the Cedar-Riverside area, extending the camera system farther east of the First Precinct downtown. The lone dissenting vote was from Ward 11 Councilmember Scott Benson, who said the process wasn’t fair. Before the City Council meeting, he said, “There was no public process. I won’t vote for it. There’s an open and transparent process. We don’t tolerate a secret process.” He added, “Why don’t we give all neighborhoods the opportunity to apply? How is it fair to give one neighborhood secret preference? To fork it over to a neighborhood that doesn’t engage in an open, competitive process is not fair.”

Ward 2 City Councilmember Cam Gordon said the West Bank neighborhood groups followed the process they were advised: research and obtain community support and conduct fundraising. “They got community support. They worked with the First Precinct inspector. They’ve been fund raising.”

West Bank Community Coalition (WBCC) safety chair Todd Smith said they’ve “pretty much got it funded.” Of the nearly $240,000 needed, about $108,000 will come from the cityl, $66,000 from NRP funds. There are commitments for funding from private donors and several local institutions are committed to or seen as likely to contribute: Cedar Riverside Business Association, the WBCC, the U of M, Augsburg College, Public Housing, and Riverside Plaza.

Deputy Chief Rob Allen, formerly co-chair of the SafeZone Collaborative while he was First Precinct inspector, noted the costs are significantly less for public safety cameras in Cedar-Riverside (which is part of downtown’s First Precinct) as there is existing infrastructure. Still, other areas such as Bloomington Avenue are being looked into. He said, “In general, we’re looking for a strategy, and are creating a comprehensive plan for public safety strategies citywide. But we don’t want to delay small projects like Cedar-Riverside while we are creating the comprehensive plan.”

Departments will include the police, Business Information Systems, Emergency Communications Center (ECC), Public Works and others. Allen said this merging of numerous city departments is unprecedented. He also noted that preliminary research is going faster now that they have done it with the Cedar Riverside area; and as technology is getting cheaper, the process for future areas such as West Broadway will go faster. With rapidly changing technology, such as wireless, infrastructure costs will be significantly lower as well.

Questions arose earlier by City Council members such as Gary Schiff and Benson regarding whether West Broadway, a high crime area with the largest number of homicides in the city, should have received priority for consideration of public safety cameras.Allen said, “I think this is viewed by some as a competition. It’s not. Our absolute intention is to do public safety cameras on West Broadway. They’re behind Cedar-Riverside in the process. It requires an engineering study and neighborhood study, finding out how to get it most cost-effective. We’re currently researching: community buy-in, how effectively the cameras work and their best location.”

Public safety cameras may be installed on West Broadway in early 2007. Allen said, “We’re not going to be ready to do cameras [there] until just before 2007 and we will use 2007 funding.” He noted engineering studies have been underway on West Broadway for a couple months.

Ward 5 Councilmember Don Samuels, whose ward includes West Broadway, approves of the Cedar-Riverside cameras installation. He looks forward to putting the technology in his ward. “It’s perfect. There are so many loopholes in court. People say, ‘I just stopped the car to talk to a friend . . .’ Cameras are irrefutable evidence of loitering, selling drugs, violent crimes . . . There’s a 100 percent conviction rate. The cameras change the face of the street. Chicago has seen 60 percent less loitering and other crimes.”

Over the past few weeks, the West Broadway Area Coalition and West Broadway Business Association have held meetings to measure community support. “They went well. They’re representative of all the neighborhood,” said Samuels, who has only heard positive feedback on the future installation of the cameras. “I wrote my email list to friends and neighbors — all responses have been enthusiastic. And, there were some threats… if I don’t follow through!”

It originally looked like the City Council was split nearly in half regarding allowing Cedar Riverside to move forward with the Unisys contract extending the camera system, but Gordon said council members’ concerns about prioritizing high crime areas and whether allocation of funds and research were going only to one neighborhood were addressed when members got to hear more of the story and the needs of the Cedar-Riverside area. “Also, they see there are other area projects underway. There is $50,000 allocated toward a preliminary engineering study on West Broadway that’s already underway. And funding is in place for cameras on Bloomington Avenue.”

Anticipated objections to having local government install cameras to monitor activity on West Bank streets never materialized. And, not only are cries of “Big Brother” also quiet in other parts of Minneapolis, but now there is a stampede of interest across the city.

Ward 3 Councilmember Diane Hofstede proposed an amendment directing City Coordinator Steven Bosacker and Interim Police Chief Tim Dolan to create a set of criteria to be used to judge future requests for surveillance camera funding and report back to the council in 60 days. That resolution passed unanimously.

Of the City Council decision to give Cedar-Riverside the go-ahead, Gordon said, “I think it’s a good resolution for this issue. I think the neighborhood worked long and hard to expand the [public safety] cameras.” The work’s not over yet, though. Gordon has still been hearing concerns from people in the neighborhood about the cameras. Gordon said, “[Public safety] is a lot more than the cameras. I hope it’s a real way to build collaboratively and improve safety in the neighborhood. I hope we can remember and address the concerns of people regarding invasion of privacy, and work hard to reassure people, and be sensitive when placing the cameras.”

Inspector Janeé Harteau, Commander of the First Precinct and manager the project, said, “I am thankful the camera project the community has worked so diligently on was passed by the City Council today, allowing us all to move forward with our safety strategies in Cedar-Riverside. Although important, the cameras are only one component of a multi-pronged approach. I am confident that with the tenacious community involvement and our collaborative efforts, we will put the West Bank back on the map for the right reasons and can serve as a model for other sections of the city, just as SafeZone has.”

Smith noted another approach to increasing safety: fill out the community impact statements sent by the First Precinct. Smith said that will help judges convict repeat offenders: “The blank CIS forms ask the members of the community to describe how they have been affected by the nuisance crimes of specific individuals, and, once completed, those testimonies are provided to the court. A community impact statement is one way to communicate with the court system to assure that convicted offenders receive the sentence they deserve.”

For more information, contact CPS Luther Kruegger, MPD First Precinct: luther.krueger@ci.minneapolis.mn.us or 612-673-2923