'SafeZone' cameras are finally watching you

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Police say they're already cutting crime; here's how the city's new street surveillance cams work

Downtown's 1st Precinct has extra eyes on the streets.

The Target-sponsored "SafeZone" cameras positioned along 1st Avenue, Hennepin Avenue South and Nicollet Mall are rolling, sending around-the-clock live wireless feeds of 20 intersections to the Minneapolis Police Department's 1st Precinct headquarters, 19 N. 4th St.

The cameras monitor a three-by-12-block area encompassing the heart of the Downtown entertainment/bar district.

A desk sergeant monitors the camera feeds on a large screen above the front desk in the 1st Precinct's lobby area, controlling them by computer. The cameras are enclosed in protective domes to keep them operational in temperature extremes, from 40-below to 140-above.

Insp. Robert Allen, who commands the precinct covering Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, credits the cameras with assisting in 10 arrests since they were turned on in early September.

Most of the arrests have been for drug deals spotted by an officer watching the live feeds. Vandals have also been caught on camera, Allen said.

On the second day of training, a group of officers witnessed a drug deal in a parking lot next to the Lamoreaux, 706 1st Ave. N. They alerted beat officers nearby, who nabbed the dealers, said Sam Wittmer, a Unisys employee training police to use the new closed-circuit television video (CCTV) system.

On a recent afternoon, Wittmer and Allen showed off the new technology to Skyway News. At one point during the show-and-tell, Wittmer zeroed in on 7th Street & Nicollet Mall, as Allen took down a report of a bank robbery at First National Bank of the Lakes, 706 2nd Ave. S.

The caller described the suspect as a man with a ski mask, eyeglasses and a hooded sweatshirt. Wittmer zoomed in with one of the cameras positioned near the intersection, but failed to find the suspect. Instead, the camera caught a glimpse of one of the 1st Precinct beat officers pursuing the suspect near the IDS Center, 80 S. 8th St.

The case remains under investigation, Allen said.

In some parts of the country, such as Seal Beach, Calif., the CCTV system is synced with burglar alarms. When the alarms go off, wireless feeds are sent to officers from inside the building. The system used by the Minneapolis Police Department does not have that feature.

The upgraded technology is expensive. In 2006, Chicago plans to unveil 250 cameras with the sophisticated features at a cost of $8.6 million, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

Chicago, which received at $5.1 million grant for its new technology, already has 2,000 surveillance cameras in place. The new technology will alert specialists watching the monitors to trouble spots. Dispatchers at 911 call centers would also have access to the live feeds and have the ability to control the cameras to zoom in on suspicious activity.

At some point, private security officers might take over the reins of Minneapolis' "SafeZone" system. Private security officers employed by Downtown businesses outnumber police officers 10 to one. Allen said the department might shift the monitoring duties to private security officers if Downtown is designated a special service district, meaning property owners within the district pay extra taxes for more city services.

In most cases, the cameras help police officers delegate work. For instance, when a call comes in about a fight after bar close in the Warehouse District, a sergeant zooms in on the scene to get a closer look to see if a couple of officers can break up the scuffle or if a larger group needs to be sent in with horses.

The desk sergeants also use the cameras to preemptively fight crime. When they see a trouble spot, they send out officers before the situation gets out of control, Allen said.

"We're using them to prevent problems," he said.

Allen said desk sergeants have to use discretion in determining which incidents spotted on the cameras take priority. "We're not going to respond if we think someone on the camera is drinking when we're busy with a bank robbery," he said.

When a desk sergeant spots suspicious activities on one of the monitors, he or she has discretion to zoom in on the scene to determine whether a crime is happening. Under Department policy, the officer is not allowed to arbitrarily zoom in on someone, look in purses or spy in office windows, Allen said.

The cameras are meant to capture what an officer could see in "plain view" on the street, he added.

There's a key difference: The person on the street can't see the sergeant watching in the 1st Precinct -- a distinction that concerns civil liberties advocates.

Said Unisys trainer Wittmer, "Some people see this as Big Brother, but if people behaved themselves we wouldn't need this."

Even those skeptical of the cameras, such as North Loop resident Ry4an Brase, who oversees the Web site, www.mpls-watched.org, which tracks the level of surveillance Downtown, concede that the "SafeZone" cameras will help officers make more arrests.

"There's no doubt that the cameras do some good," Brase said.

However, Brase is concerned about the potential for abuse and the public's level of ignorance. "It's amazing that people don't notice them," he said.

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach with the new "SafeZone" system before making a judgment. Tom Hoch, head of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA), is in that category.

"I was skeptical of this whole idea at first since I wasn't really sure the benefits would outweigh my concerns about people being watched all the time," Hoch said. "The cameras, viewed against the backdrop of some provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act, raised concerns for me that we might be going too far."

Hoch added he hasn't heard any complaints about the cameras and plans to give the "SafeZone" project more time before making an assessment.

Luther Krueger, a civilian crime-prevention specialist for the 1st Precinct, is more convinced of the cameras' benefits.

He recently met with a Downtown parking lot manager to encourage him to add lighting and higher fences after desk officers spotted extensive loitering in the area.

"We always talk about the community being the eyes and ears of the Police Department, but the fact is that not every crime situation or suspicious activity will be witnessed by citizens or officers," Krueger said. "Having the cameras in place where we have tended to have the highest demand for police presence, even for nuisance crimes can only help us document cases better and direct our resources more efficiently."