How many of our daily steps around the neighborhood get recorded by cameras?
No one quite knows, but the number is steadily growing.
As the city of St. Paul installs new security cameras this winter along University Avenue, paid for by a federal transit grant, St. Paul schools are preparing to add cameras this spring at Como High School and Murray Junior High.
Homeowners and businesses also increasingly rely on cameras for security. Tom and Tim’s Speedy Market, at Como and Doswell, has had a video security system in place for 11 years, according to co-owner Tom Speigl.
He said that while keeping employees and customers safe from violent crime is the main purpose of the cameras, they have proved useful in other ways as well.
“I’m in the office and I see, oh, they’re busy out there,” Speigl said. “I can go give them some help.”
Ned Wesenberg, owner of the BP station at Como and Raymond, said he beefed up security there after “a really violent robbery in October.” His 16 cameras now cover the whole intersection and could record a traffic accident as well as alerting him to suspicious persons approaching the store.
He said it’s sometimes important to look back through several days’ worth of videos to pick up on patterns of behavior, such as someone hanging around at the edge of the property looking for opportunities.
Wesenberg’s cameras are backed up by prominent signs warning that the area is under video surveillance.
“Hopefully, it can cut down on violence,” he said. “I’d encourage it all around the neighborhood.”
The 1,100 cameras operated statewide by the University of Minnesota include surveillance of St. Paul campus building entrances and also high-risk areas inside buildings, according to Bob Janoski, the university’s director of security.
Janoski noted that the university’s security policy requires blocking out any part of a camera’s view that strays outside campus property, and also protects the privacy of persons inside buildings.
“I might care about who is lurking around the outside of a residence hall,” Janoski said, “but what’s going on inside those windows should not be on video.”
The university’s cameras are watched around the clock by live viewers at a central security office, and the images are stored for 30 days. Images are released only for a formal investigation, Janoski said — for law enforcement or for an audit.
“A community member (faculty, staff or student) can’t just request to see video of someone else,” he said.
Speedy Market and BP’s owners said they also store their video records as well as monitoring them live.
Some St. Paul schools have security cameras. Director of Security and Emergency Management William Waterkamp said the district’s policy distinguishes between common areas such as hallways and lunchrooms, where cameras are thought to improve safety, and classrooms, where there’s “a little more expectation of privacy than you’d have in a common area.”
He said none of the cameras are hidden, and they do not record sound. “I think that’s been an issue in some towns,” he added.
St. Paul police anticipate a shift in the way they do their jobs as security cameras go in along University Avenue, thanks to a federal grant associated with the Central Corridor transit project.
“It’s a fundamental change in the way we’re going to do police work in St. Paul,” according to Cmdr. Doug Holtz of the Western District.
A visit to Dallas convinced him of the cameras’ value for law enforcement, he said. “It does create a safer environment. It resulted in a lot of arrests, and almost everybody pleads guilty” when a video record is brought to court.
Holtz said that like Minneapolis’ camera system, St. Paul will have public kiosks where interested citizens can walk up and see what information the cameras gather. One kiosk will be at the Western District office, 389 N. Hamline.
On August 8, 2007, the St. Paul City Council voted 7-0, after a brief discussion, to apply for the grant “to install approximately sixty (60) cameras throughout the Central Corridor in an effort to reduce crime, increase business and the overall safety along the designated route,” according to council minutes. No one is on record as having objected to the project.
Security cameras have not gone over so easily in other places. In the United Kingdom, reputedly the world leader in the use of video surveillance, an organization called Liberty has issued a report urging a broad review of privacy rights.
Their concerns include invasion of personal space and interference with personal relationships, which means both the freedom to have certain relationships with others and the freedom to avoid them. The report, “Overlooked: Surveillance and Personal Privacy in Modern Britain,” is available at www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk.
Some citizens have also questioned the cost of the cameras and how much community police work — cops on the beat — could have been purchased instead.
Along with an article on the prevalence of security cameras in the United Kingdom last March, the Evening Standard’s Web site (www.thisislondon.co.uk) posted a graphic showing surveillance cameras surrounding the historic home of George Orwell, the famous anti-authoritarian who wrote “1984.”
The Standard counted 32 cameras within 200 yards of Orwell’s flat.