Monday, May 12, 2008

"Every time the government opens the door, however slightly, it's going to keep pushing until it gets that door open all the way."

Caught on camera?

May 12, 2008

by Jim Swift
KXAN -TV (Austin)
Copyright 2008

Perhaps nowhere in the world are surveillance cameras more ubiquitous than in England. Police there can track people from one camera to another as they move around town.

Yet a senior police official in London this month said the city's huge network of video surveillance cameras is "an utter fiasco." Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville was quoted in the Guardian newspaper, saying the use of CCTV images for court evidence has so far been very poor. According to the article, Neville said only 3 percent of London street crimes have been solved by the cameras.

So what does that have to do with Austin? Well, despite the news from England, Austin officials are pressing ahead with a plan to install video surveillance cameras in four of the city's high-crime areas, including downtown's Sixth Street entertainment district. It's a notion that has its critics.

"The idea that when you're going about your daily business, when you're going to the doctor, when you're, you know, making appointments, that your license plate, your face is being recorded on cameras and could be used to track your movements, I think is very disturbing to Americans," said American Civil Liberties Union Texas policy director Rebecca Burnhart. The ACLU is behind a report called, "Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society."

"The real issue for us is that once you put cameras in one area, what happens is crime doesn't stop; it just moves a little bit, and that creates an incentive to put cameras on the next street and the next street and the next street," Burnhart added.

The ACLU has an ally in this debate in the Texas Civil Rights Project, headed by Jim Harrington.

"It really does become the eye of Big Brother," Harrington said. "If you could just even keep it focused even on the narrow area that the government says it's going to, it would be a different story, but we know that every time the government opens the door, however slightly, it's going to keep pushing until it gets that door open all the way."

And we're not just talking police cameras here. Video surveillance is also used to administer area toll roads and to control traffic flow on all manner of streets. The Texas Department of Transportation, for example, at any one time is monitoring dozens of cameras around town, and at exactly 44 minutes and 42 seconds past 4 on the afternoon of April 21, a KXAN Austin News live truck passed by U.S. 183 at Braker Lane.

TxDOT said it does not record the camera feeds, but we did, and it was perfectly legal.

"There have been incidents where recordings on surveillance cameras have been fed to the media or distributed on YouTube, frequently in a situation that's not criminal conduct but that's embarrassing conduct," the ACLU's Burnhart said.

But hold on a second. In case after case around the country, video surveillance has proved immensely effective in providing evidence of criminal acts committed in front of the camera lens, and in Downtown Austin, the proprietor of one shop longs for the day that surveillance cameras finally get installed on Sixth Street.

Lauri Turner, owner of the Hatbox Haberdashery, has been the victim of crime on the street more than half a dozen times. On one occasion, she was working at her desk when she suddenly found a man standing beside her.

"He just walked right into the store, put a knife at my throat and demanded the money, which he got," Turner said.

It was Christmas Eve, and the man got away with $800 she had saved to buy musical instruments for her children.

"I don't care about the perpetrator's rights anymore, at all," she said.

This is just the sort of incident Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo had in mind when he proposed installing video surveillance cameras in four high-crime areas around town.

"We have lost our innocence in terms of the number of people that are getting killed and injured out here," Acevedo said.

"Does that mean in his mind, we get to violate constitutional rights, because he thinks that crime is more severe?" Harrington asked.

"We will have some safety valves in place, where if someone abuses the system, they'll be looking for a new career," Acevedo said.

Harrington is not persuaded. "Justice Brandeis," he said, "on the U.S. Supreme Court years ago, said, ‘We have to fear the government the most when it's at its most benevolent.'"

The idea, however, marches on. The plan is to install video surveillance cameras, monitored by the police department along the Sixth Street entertainment district. Other locations that would get the cameras include Rundberg Lane and Interstate 35 in North Austin, Montopolis Boulevard in the Southeast part of town, and Twelfth and Chicon streets on the East Side.

The cameras have the blessing of the Austin Public Safety Task Force, and officials are looking for grant money to fund the program, which is expected to cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Depending on your point of view, that money will fund government to our rescue or domestic spying, wrapped in Old Glory.

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