St. Paul considering downtown cameras

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Citing the success of surveillance cameras in downtown Minneapolis, the St. Paul City Council on April 12 began the debate about installing a similar system in downtown St. Paul.

The system they are discussing is the Close Circuit Television (CCTV) for video surveillance. It is based on the Safe City concept, developed in the United Kingdom during the 1990s. “When you look at other cities … what you see is substantial reduction of crime and, above that, prevention of crime, “ said St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington.

But the issue goes beyond the cameras. “What we really propose is a safe city initiative,” he added. In effect, a 2005 Home Office Study in the U.K. indicates that “as more CCTV systems are installed and offenders become aware of their presence, they will perceive the cameras as a danger.”

A recent study in some St. Paul neighborhoods showed that perpetrators were more likely to plead guilty when they saw themselves on the video. There is also a residual effect of having people on tape: once a criminal is caught, the rest would spread the word about the dangerous spot, and crime will be reduced there.

Moreover, if the cameras are complemented with enhanced radio communications and exchange of information between security officers, the Police Department, and public transportation staff, “this will enhance our ability to respond effectively,” said Harrington. He also mentioned that major stores such as Target—which funded the downtown Minneapolis system—were concerned about security and interested in investing money on CCTV systems.

In regard to the threat to privacy and civil liberties that CCTV represents, staff research noted that “there is no expectation for privacy in public areas.” Harrison added that “camera systems are everywhere,” and that it is like having thousands of police officers on every corner, only that this way it is less expensive. He mentioned implementing the system not only in the Downtown area, but also in Midway and on University Avenue, “from the U of M Minneapolis campus to at least the Capitol.”

About the policies on the use of cameras, Harrison explained that no audio recording equipment will be included. “Operators will not target individuals based on race, color, sexual orientation, or political interest,” he said. The cameras will not be used in places where there may be an expectation of privacy and the public will be notified of the use of these devices. “It will allow us to solve problems; it will allow us to reduce crime,” he concluded.
The council also analyzed the result the CCTV system has had in the city of Minneapolis since its implementation last year. They concluded that, “CCTV shows no overall effect on all crime when viewed collectively,” but “evidence shows CCTV is more effective in some contexts.” In addition, “impulsive crimes were less likely impacted than premeditated crimes (burglary, vehicle offenses, property crimes).” Minneapolis First Precinct Inspector Rob Allen said that, eight months after the installation, “300 arrests have been made as direct result of these cameras.”

Council members discussed the use of Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE) technology, which consists of “photographic, video or electronic images that show the rear of a motor vehicle and/or the vehicle’s registration plate as the vehicle violates a standard traffic control signal.” They analyzed the results of ATE in Minneapolis, where it has been used for the last eight months. Since its installation, the number of T-bone accidents has decreased by 20 Percent. The system brings profit to the city, increasing the number of tickets issued. A recent court ruling found the so-called “photo cop” system to be unconstitutional. It has been suspended in Minneapolis pending a legal appeal.

Council Member Lee Helgen explained that the mayor’s office wanted the Council “to spend a little more time on this issue,” and that “deep privacy concerns” will make the administration take more time to give a response. Council Member Pat Harris, added that he “would also like a more detailed financial analysis of both the systems.” The council agreed to do more research and return to the topic at a later meeting.

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