Will public cameras make Downtown a 'SafeZone'?

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May 19, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Target plans to buy outdoor security cams to watch 1st Avenue, Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Mall. Neighborhood groups approve, but some fear a loss of civil liberties.

As early as July, Minneapolis police may be able to spot every incidence of public drunkenness, panhandling or drug dealing on the streets in Downtown\'s core.

They may also be able to spot every time someone picks his nose on Hennepin Avenue, visits an adult bookstore or does anything else remotely embarrassing.

This could all be possible with nearly a million dollars\' worth of video cameras on Downtown\'s streets.

This police omnipresence is courtesy of \"SafeZone,\" a private/public partnership between the Target Corp. and the 1st Police Precinct. Target would donate 20-30 security cameras, and police would watch Downtown\'s public streets. Currently, the police only have cameras outside their station on 4th Street.

Many think cameras can help fight and deter the livability crimes that give Downtown a bad reputation. The North Loop and the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood association boards have unanimously supported the concept. But while the cameras are legal, others see a loss of civil liberties and the specter of Big Brother.

\"We\'re never going to have enough money for our police to be everywhere all the time,\" said Doug Kress, aide to City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward). \"[A camera system] will be a great opportunity for us to have additional eyes witnessing things on the streets that are happening, including a lot of the nuisance crimes that we hear about from our Downtown patrons and Downtown visitors.\"

However, Charles Samuelson, executive director of Minnesota\'s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, \"We have an expectation that when we\'re walking down the street ... we\'re not under constant police surveillance. Under this proposal, we would be.\"

Samuelson added, \"People will be arrested - but more importantly they\'re going to find behavior on the streets that\'s not illegal but would be embarrassing. As sure as God made little green apples, that\'s going to become public.\"

How would the system work?

First Precinct Insp. Rob Allen said he had wanted to install cameras for some time when Target\'s government affairs manager, Jim Bender, approached him with the same idea.

Bender, who used to be a police lieutenant (and Allen\'s boss for two weeks), had been looking at how cities like Wilmington, Del., and Manchester, England, used cameras to reduce crime. He wanted to bring the concept back to Target\'s headquarters city.

Under the current proposal, Target would install the cameras on street corners from Washington Avenue to 12th Street, 1st Avenue, Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Mall. These cameras would be watched constantly from a secure viewing location, most likely by police reservists. Reserves are unpaid volunteers who usually handle traffic control and special events; the department currently has 54.

Target would fund the cameras for three years, after which the program would be reviewed.

Target spokesperson Lena Klofstad said the cost of the cameras is not yet available. However, in Wilmington, Del., a business improvement group raised $800,000 to implement a 26-camera system in their downtown.

Klofstad said Target\'s potential camera contribution fits the company\'s charitable giving initiatives. \"Since 1946, we\'ve given back five percent of our federally taxable income to the community. At this time it works out to about $2 million a week,\" she said.

\"One of the reasons we\'re interested in [this] project in Downtown Minneapolis is to help enhance the safety of the Downtown community and help it remain a very vibrant place for people to live and work and shop and visit,\" Klofstad added.

Benefits

According to 1st Precinct crime-prevention specialist Luther Krueger, security cameras could send the message that Downtown is not conducive to crime.

\"I predict [cameras] are going to drastically reduce drug dealing on Hennepin. And because a lot of these other crimes are related to drugs, the addicts who break into cars as they\'re coming to Hennepin to get a fix won\'t do that,\" Krueger said.

In Wilmington, Martin Hageman, executive director of the downtown business improvement district, said cameras generated 105 arrests and 344 emergency service calls since they were installed two years ago.

According to a Target-Minneapolis police presentation, Wilmington\'s burglaries dropped 32 percent, robberies fell 5 percent, shoplifting decreased 22 percent, and auto theft was reduced 20 percent.

\"The police department believes cameras are an added incentive to their patrols, as does the mayor,\" Hageman said. \"It has been a great deterrent. It\'s been very successful here.\"

And some believe that street cameras could have helped the search for a University of Minnesota student who disappeared from a Downtown bar last Halloween.

At a Downtown Council meeting May 7, one unidentified audience member said, \"I had the unfortunate occasion to be part of a group searching for a young man who disappeared from Downtown ... Over three to four days, we contacted every building that might have had cameras. We didn\'t find anything. They don\'t retain these tapes very long. This [security camera program] will be a phenomenal addition.\"

Concerns

Despite the hopes cameras engender, opponents point out that security cameras are often no help.

\"Katie Poirier [a 19-year-old convenience store clerk from Moose Lake, Minn.] was on video camera, and she was abducted and murdered,\" the Civil Liberties Union\'s Samuelson said. \"It isn\'t as clear-cut as everybody makes it seem.\"

Samuelson worries that the security cameras could be used for the wrong purposes. \"Suppose you\'re being stalked by someone who has access to this video tape. They could follow you all over and know your whole routine. It could just as easily create situations ripe for blackmail,\" he said. \"That\'s the trouble with this. You can say it\'ll make you safer. Maybe it will and maybe it won\'t.\"

Hageman said that in Wilmington, those monitoring the cameras are also being videotaped to assure they\'re watching responsibly. \"It ensures that they\'re watching the cameras and not peering in someone\'s windows,\" he said.

It is not yet clear if Minneapolis monitors would be taped. Said Krueger, \"We will have plenty on our hands without checking out which local politician just walked out of Sex World.\"

Both Samuelson and Loring Park neighbors have raised concerns that Target will use the cameras for marketing purposes. \"The idea that a corporation is doing it, what\'s in it for them?\" Samuelson asked. \"Do they really believe it provides more security or are they more interested in checking out who goes into their stores?\"

Allen said the 1st Precinct is writing a policy that says the \"cameras are to be used to prevent and deter crime and for legitimate criminal investigations\" and not to be used for marketing purposes. He and Target officials emphasize that once installed, the camera system will be a police program.

As for concerns that Downtown cameras will push crime into camera-free neighborhoods, Krueger said that\'s \"kind of a \'so what\' argument.

\"Our feeling is that we want the problem to move outside the area with the cameras, because there aren\'t a lot of places outside the area of the cameras Downtown that [criminals] will feel comfortable in anyway,\" Krueger said.

\"So what if crime gets pushed up into the Fourth Precinct? That means that hopefully we will have made enough arrests to establish the fact that Downtown is off limits to drug dealers. If everyone gets their act together, then Minneapolis will be perceived as not cordial to crime.\"

However, Samuelson thinks the cameras will be a \"quick fix that won\'t accomplish anything.\"

He said, \"We can get the appearance of public safety and it doesn\'t cost us anything, so it\'s good. That\'s not going to work. It\'s videotaping our entire public life.\"

Next steps

Currently, the camera proposal is just that - a proposal that will go to the City Council\'s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee May 21. If the proposal passes the full City Council, Downtown could see cameras on the streets as early as July.

Allen has been presenting the idea to Downtown neighborhood organizations. Although some neighbors have voiced privacy concerns, most have supported the proposal. The Downtown Council, a group of business leaders, also supports public cameras.

Said Allen, \"If the community didn\'t support it, neither would I.\"