Greenville plans upgrade to downtown video surveillance system

Greenville NewsSeptember 14, 2013 

The television takes up a wall of the communications center, and it is always on.

Dozens of screens show various angles of downtown Greenville, some panning, some fixed in place. Cars stopping at traffic lights, pedestrians crossing the street — every second is recorded on police cameras and streamed back to this room.

Trained on key blocks from the Bi-Lo Center to the West End and in public parking garages, the 120 cameras are part of a surveillance network that the police department plans to upgrade this year.

At least six cameras will be added and existing ones replaced under a five-year, $1.5 million capital improvement project, according to city officials who say downtown’s surveillance network hasn’t expanded since the first cameras came online.

Police reported a 32 percent drop in crime after the $670,000 network was installed a decade ago, saying cameras had deterred garage vandalism and curbed the number of auto break-ins downtown — the most prevalent crime before cameras appeared. Technology has evolved into a new dimension of surveillance since then.

Once in place, the new cameras will be equipped with high-definition lenses that can zoom in close enough to see a face or read a license plate, said Mike Jann, Greenville’s director of information technology, with a range of tools that could backtrack suspicious people or vehicles.

The growing number of cities turning to such devices has raised concerns from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who say that advances in police surveillance systems have outpaced the development of guidelines to check their abuse.

“The right to privacy is being eroded,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of South Carolina’s chapter of the ACLU. “Now it’s increasingly possible to track a citizen’s entire day, so we are concerned about how the police department would be monitoring their own surveillance.”

Who’s watching?

If you look hard enough, you’ll find the cameras.

The unobtrusive glass orbs are fixed to trees, perched atop utility poles, mounted on the side of City Hall. The parking garages alone have more than 50, monitoring doorways and sweeping levels from corner to corner.

Other cities already have hundreds of these cameras. Chicago has 2,000, and Baltimore has 480, including cameras at almost every intersection downtown, according to the Washington-based Urban Institute.

Atlanta wants to have 1,000 by the end of the year and 10,000 within five years for its Operation Shield project, which would integrate public- and private-sector cameras across a citywide network, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Downtown Anderson has dozens of cameras. Clemson installed seven last spring. And Charleston has used federal and state grants to install approximately 40 cameras along King Street, and in high-crime areas.

Charleston Deputy Police Chief Tony Elder said the city’s program has been so well received that residents in one community have been lobbying for police-funded cameras trained on their streets.

“It’s more about watching out for people as opposed to watching people,” Elder said.

Cameras in downtown Greenville have caught two teenagers defacing a sculpture with anarchy symbols and a man spray-painting graffiti onto six buildings and the base of a lamp post. They’ve also helped police break up a number of fights at the entrance to Falls Park over the years.

Video footage in those cases identified the suspects and led to arrests, but Wilfong said the cameras are used more as tools for preventing crimes rather than intervening in them.

While police in Clemson, Charleston and Greenville all say their cameras help reduce crime, records haven’t been kept on how many arrests cameras have netted or the degree to which surveillance has reduced crime.

“That’s crime prevention. You can’t measure it because you don’t know,” Wilfong said.

Results from an Urban Institute study that examined the issue in three U.S. cities, however, showed crime falling “significantly” within months of installation, but only in areas where cameras are so concentrated they blanket the streets and live streams are regularly monitored by trained staff.

Downtown Baltimore, for example, had a 25 percent decrease in overall crime, with larceny falling 32 percent and violent crime 23 percent, the study said.

Inside Greenville’s communications center, video feeds play in the background, and dispatchers answer their calls. The only time the tapes are viewed is when someone reports an incident, Wilfong said.

Cameras in Clemson aren’t watched live, according to Police Chief Jimmy Dixon. Charleston has hired staff to monitor its system, Elder said.

Middleton said the ACLU met with Charleston police to discuss who could have access to video feeds and for how long before the department put its second wave of cameras online. The ACLU has a firm stance against 24-hour government surveillance, she said, but “at least they put in place controls. They have policies.

“There would need to be follow-up by concerned citizens to see how well those are working and whether there have been any abuses,” Middleton said.

Wilfong said similar guidelines are followed in her department. The camera footage streams into a secure system, in a room that can be accessed only with a key file. Video can be retained for only five days unless there’s an active investigation or footage is requested through the Freedom of Information Act, which goes through the city attorney’s office.

“We don’t have abuse. We have parameters in place, and we’re sworn law enforcement,” Wilfong said.

The whole package

There are limitations in what Greenville’s decade-old cameras can do.

Because no one routinely monitors them, the cameras are set to slow pans that sometimes catch only a brief glimpse of an incident. On a dark night in bad weather or in large crowds, they might not capture anything at all.

Jann, the city’s information technology director, said future cameras that are fixed instead of constantly moving should be more beneficial to police, as would facial recognition, motion detection and low-light feature capabilities.

The new system also would allow video to be viewed from any authorized computer with an Internet connection, he said.

City officials say security measures like the cameras and more police officers downtown mean they’re being more proactive against crime.

“We’ve enjoyed a very low crime rate, but our downtown’s changed, and we need to provide public safety that reflects those changes,” City Manager John Castile said.

He points to the West End, where several of the new cameras would be installed to keep pace with the development and residents who didn’t live there 10 years ago.

Kevin Dunn, president of the West End Business Association, said that while the area is safe as it is, he has no problem with more cameras.

“The bad people will behave better, and the good people will feel safer … being down here at night,” said Dunn, an insurance agent.

A few blocks down from Dunn, downtown resident Maureen Coyne said she had never noticed the cameras that are perched around her building in the four years she’s lived there. She doesn’t feel any safer being told about their presence.

“If it was publicly known information, then maybe that would deter crime, make someone think twice before they were going to commit a crime, but if I’m not aware that they’re down there as a resident, I doubt most of the general public is,” Coyne said.

She, like Dunn, isn’t concerned about the recent robberies that have happened in her neighborhood. When she walks home at night, she stays on Main Street.

More lighting is also part of the overhaul in security downtown, Castile said.

He names areas off Main Street, including Camperdown Way, the River Street underpass, Cancer Survivor’s Park, East McBee Avenue and Markley and Rhett streets, which will have new street lights installed using the current year’s operating budget.

More locations will be added to the list as “popularity increases, and people try to find a place to park and leave their vehicles,” Castile said.

“It needs to be well-lit so they can be our eyes and ears but also so that people can have their perception that it’s lit, and travelers can group, and it’s safe.”

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