Monday, April 08, 2002

Bus cameras add to privacy debate

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        More than ever, they're watching. And it's increasingly with small, digital, tamper-proof security cameras. In debate is whether they are a “Big Brother” intrusion on privacy, or an effective monitor — and deterrent — of crime. Or a little of both.

        Either way, technology is improving rapidly and the practice will continue to grow, possibly toward real-time police monitoring of public transportation or an ATM machine, for example, industry sources say.

        Metro recently began installing 80 new digital camera systems on its buses, at a cost of $560,000 paid for by federal grants, and may purchase up to 300 systems over the next three years.

        Today, 124 of Metro's 426 buses have them, three cameras pointing inside and one pointing out. All are clearly marked.

        “I love it,” Fran Wilcox, 48, of Westwood said Friday morning, minutes before getting on a camera-equipped bus, the No. 6 at Government Square, downtown.

        “We're not safe, but you'd like to feel a sense of security as you go through day-to-day life,” said Ms. Wilcox, a grandmother of 14.

        “If you don't have anything to hide, you shouldn't have a problem.”

        Last week in Los Angeles, county supervisors approved a video-camera system along 72 miles of coastline to monitor crowds, weather, pollution and water rescues.

        Cost: $800,000.

        In other parts of the country, security cameras are at beaches, national monuments and sports arenas.

        “Now, with the World Trade Center (attacks), we're a data nation,” said Neil Maxwell, national accounts manager for Houston-based Safety Vision, which sold the system to Metro.

        “We'll figure out how to integrate all these systems” - police, fire, public transportation, even ARTIMIS-type highway signs, he said.

Scrutiny a divisive issue

        In Cincinnati, police for years have used cameras mounted on high-crime street corners to aid law enforcement.

        Currently, they are mounted in Avondale (where there are two), Over-the-Rhine, Evanston, Madisonville, East Walnut Hills, Mount Auburn and Northside.

        Unlike Metro's, police cameras are hidden - typically on telephone poles - and unmarked, though vandals have removed at least one.

        But they remain a divisive issue.

        In a Feb. 8 memo to Cincinnati City Council, former Safety Director Gregory Baker urged removal of the cameras, citing cost ($24,502) and effectiveness. The money comes not from grants, but the department's annual budget.

        “Neighborhood cameras can be an effective public relations tool,” he wrote.

        “However, to date, they have not provided any enforcement or evidentiary value.”

        Mr. Baker recommended shifting that money to officer overtime or the city's Violent Crimes Task Force.

        Supporters say the lack of evidence comes because criminals know where the cameras are mounted and avoid those areas. In Cincinnati, sites are selected by neighborhood councils.

        Metro says its cameras are a deterrent to crime and provide other advantages.

        “We see many benefits, in cases of accidents, risk-management and investigating claims,” said Metro spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers.

        Bus rider Ray Hope, 25, of Westwood approves of cameras on buses, but not streets.

        “Now that's different,” he said. “That's our privacy. I mean, maybe downtown. But not everywhere.”

A camera on every corner?

        But everywhere is where they're coming, said Mr. Maxwell of Safety Vision.

        “It's very easy to see five years from now,” he said.

        “It'll relay real time back to a control center. But it's still slow and expensive.”

        He said Safety Vision has sold cameras to other bus systems in Ohio in Dayton and Columbus, as well as in Pittsburgh; St. Loui; Portland, Ore.; Washington, D.C.; Hampton Roads, Va.; Las Vegas; Hartford, Conn.; New Orleans and Miami.

        Initially, he said, bus cameras were pointed outside — not inside. The goal was to capture crashes, street vandalism and injuries of insurance litigants.

        “They wanted to catch rock-throwing kids,” Mr. Maxwell said.

        Some people might consider cameras on streets and beaches too intrusive, but the courts may not.

        “The Fourth Amendment protects reasonable expectations of privacy,” explained Jamin Roskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University in Washington, D.C.

        “But the theory is, if you're in public, you've exposed yourself visually to the world, so you don't have that expectation.

        “There's a difference,” he said, “between what people think should be private and what the court looks as a constitutionally protected zone of privacy.

        “The argument for it is safety,” Mr. Roskin said. “Crime makes public space unattractive, but government surveillance doesn't really improve its appeal.”

        Some states, including Ohio, allow audio recording as well. Metro cameras have audio.

        Back at Government Square, awaiting the No. 6 to the West Side, Roy Wright, 45, of South Fairmount looked at it this way:

        “It makes people think before they do stuff,” he said. “As long as they don't put any in my apartment, it's cool.”


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