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A farsighted approach to camera surveillance

CMPD should listen, explain how it will use promising tool

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are contemplating what to do with 500 surveillance cameras, a fifth of which were purchased to monitor public activity during the Democratic National Convention in September. The cameras can be a useful crime fighting resource, but they come with a significant question for city and police officials: How much might they ultimately cost, in both dollars and the city’s relationship with the citizens it’s trying to protect?

Police officers, technicians and lawyers are confronting those questions, among others, as they write guidelines for surveillance cameras and make plans to move some to crime-plagued communities, the Observer reported Sunday. The advantage to the cameras is evident – officers can monitor several troublesome areas at once, which not only helps officers respond quickly to crimes, but aids police in moving resources to specific areas where crime is more rampant. But are the cameras, which cost about $8,000 each, worth the price?

In 2011, the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute reported on three cities – Baltimore, Chicago and Washington – that used cameras in downtown and high-crime areas. In Baltimore, despite some unanticipated expenses from vandalism, researchers found cameras had a strong influence in reducing crime. In Chicago, the analysis found similar results, including a 33 percent reduction in drug crimes in one of the two test areas. In Washington, researchers found a drop in crime in areas covered by cameras, but weren’t sure how much other factors contributed.

The conclusion: In at least two of the cities – and perhaps the third – the cameras seemed to be worth the investment. For Charlotte, which already has the cameras on hand, the benefits from deploying them could be far greater than the operation and maintenance costs.

But that deployment brings with it some delicate issues. Will the cameras invade the privacy of law-abiding citizens or result in racial profiling in high-crime areas? As Charlotte civil rights attorney James Ferguson told the Observer: “They’re not going to be in Ballantyne. They’re not going to be on Rea Road or out in Myers Park.”

He’s right. The cameras will likely be used more in higher-crime areas – and those, as Ferguson says, can be a “surrogate for racial minority areas.” It’s also true, however, that police rightly devote a higher level of resources already to those areas. Cameras are another such resource, and used carefully and thoughtfully, they can have a positive impact on the neighborhoods that need them most.

Still, the city and police should be attentive to the sensitivities surrounding the devices. In Washington, the city council designed guidelines on camera use after consulting with the public, including the ACLU and American Bar Association, during a series of public meetings. The resulting regulations prohibited cameras from viewing private spaces or targeting subjects based on race or other characteristics. The guidelines even banned cameras from viewing flyers or handbills in order to protect First Amendment rights.

That level of public outreach hasn’t happened here. Members of a Charlotte City Council subcommittee that deals with police matters told the Observer they hadn’t been briefed on the department’s camera plans. That should change. CMPD, along with the city council, should hold public hearings to listen to community concerns and explain what the cameras will and will not do. Those meetings can help inform police as they write their guidelines for camera use, and although the transparency won’t bring satisfaction to everyone, it can add credibility and public comfort to a potentially valuable crime fighting tool.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email local@charlotteobserver.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

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