Federal grants bring surveillance cameras to small towns
BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – This snowy village, in the shadow of Fall Mountain and alongside the iced-over Connecticut River, is the kind of place where a little of anything usually suffices. There are just eight full-time police officers on the town’s force, two chairs in the barbershop and one screen in the theater.A little of anything – except surveillance cameras. Bellows Falls has decided it needs 16 of those.Using federal grant money, police plan to put up the 24-hour cameras at such spots as intersections, a sewage plant and the town square. All told, this hamlet will have just three fewer police surveillance cameras than the District of Columbia, which has 181 times Bellows Falls’ population.Similar cameras are already up in the Virginia communities of Galax and Tazewell, where police can pan right down Main Street, and in tiny Preston, Md., with two police officers and five police cameras. An interest in public, permanent video surveillance – as well as the federal dollars to pay for it – seems to be flowing down to the smallest levels of American law enforcement.So far, the growth of small-town surveillance camera systems has not received much national notice. But it already seems to be changing the way such Mayberry-size places are policed.”People don’t notice things” as they used to in Bellows Falls, said Keith Clark, the village’s police chief. Instead, “now, technology is there to do that.”Large police departments have only started to embrace public surveillance in the past six years or so, long after privately owned cameras became ubiquitous at banks, ATMs and stores. Electronic networks have gone up in places such as Baltimore, Chicago and New York.But, despite the popularity of these systems, some critics still question whether they are any good at stopping crimes in progress. In Washington, for instance, the worst offense caught on police cameras so far seems to have been a car break-in – in 2001.”Nothing will be happening most of the time. Multiply that by several cameras with nothing happening, all the time. It’s very difficult for any human being to be vigilant,” said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, which gets federal funding to write guidelines for police procedures.Small-town surveillance would seem to offer only a whole lot more nothing. Still, some smaller police departments have been drawn in: An informal search turned up 17 with 100 or fewer officers that either had a surveillance system or plans to put one up. All but two of these departments had either created or expanded their system since 2001.They come as big as the department in Salisbury, Md., with 88 officers, which plans to put up seven cameras this year. The smallest included the Hoopa Valley Tribal Police in Northern California, where the nine-member force often has no officer on duty from 4 to 8 a.m.Spokesmen for the departments of Justice and Homeland Security said they were unable to compile information about how many small-town camera programs the agencies had funded, or how much had been spent.Privacy advocates said last week that they were concerned that several of the towns have no policies about who or what could be surveilled with the cameras.In the southwestern Virginia town of Galax, for instance, police have no policy for their two downtown cameras and also haven’t put up signs alerting passersby that they’re being watched.”What you do in public, you’ve got no expectation of privacy,” said Police Chief Rick Clark.Many of the police departments had success stories – license plates spotted, witnesses located or suspects caught through the new camera technology. In Newnan, Ga., for instance, Chief D.L. Meadows recalled a case in which one of his 20 cameras spotted a drug suspect sitting on his front porch, then provided the chief with an electronic view of the arrest.”I was sitting in my office, and watched him break and run” as officers arrived, Meadows said. “It was great. I mean, I enjoyed it.”But others say too few officers are available to have anyone watching the cameras full time. Instead, the monitors are in front of distracted dispatchers, or not watched live at all – police look back at the recorded video only after a crime has occurred.And even then, depending on where small-town lawlessness pops up, the cameras are sometimes no help.”We have not actually captured any crimes on video,” said Capt. William Zbacnik of the Pittsburg, Calif., Police Department, which installed its network of 11 cameras early last year.Still, Zbacnik said he believes the cameras are worth it.”It costs you virtually $100,000 to put an officer on the street, versus $5,000 for a camera,” Zbacnik said. “I’d put as many cameras out there as you can.”Although some critics warn that there are hidden costs for camera upkeep and data storage, the market for small-town surveillance doesn’t seem to be flagging. This year, a San Diego company called U.S. Relay will start offering a kind of pay-per-view surveillance, in which public cameras are installed and police departments pay to watch them.