San Francisco Considers Video Surveillance

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San Francisco may soon install an extensive network of public surveillance cameras to discourage neighborhood crime. Plans in London and some U.S. cities have met with success. But critics are uncomfortable with having "big brother" always watching.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now another story about a high-profile California politician with some big ideas. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is pushing to use video surveillance cameras to fight crime. It's been done in Chicago and New York. Critics say the effectiveness of those systems has been greatly exaggerated, but as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, Newsom says that even a couple of cameras can have a big impact in one neighborhood.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

More than a century ago San Francisco's Western Addition neighborhood was near the edge of town leading away from the docks of the bay. As the city grew, this district of old Victorians and modern apartments became part of the heart of the city, and now many of the residents here say that heart isn't so healthy.

Mr. GEORGE SMITH (Director, Ella Hill Hutch Community Center): It's a lot of hopelessness in the community.

GONZALES: George Smith directs the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center in the Western Addition.

Mr. SMITH: What's going on in the community right now, we have rampant unemployment, the truancy is rampant, drug issues--sales and both using are rampant in the community. We have a lot of street violence, a lot of just guns all over the street.

GONZALES: Recently the city installed two bulletproof video cameras atop utility poles. They're aimed at what had been a crime-plagued intersection near a public housing project here. After the cameras went up, the numbers of murders, assaults, robberies and burglaries plummeted. Now Mayor Newsom has plans for installing more cameras on a 90-day pilot basis in six other locations around the city. Peter Ragone is Newsom's spokesman.

Mr. PETER RAGONE (Newsom Spokesman): The mayor chose these six places because 18 homicides have occurred in these six places in the past two years. And so the mayor views this as a way to stop the epidemic of homicides that are occurring in the African-American community.

GONZALES: The mayor's office calls them community safety cameras. They'll record only images, not sound, for 72 hours. After that, the digital recordings are automatically erased unless the Police Department wants to see them. The cameras will not be monitored.

Mayor Newsom hasn't said exactly how many street cameras he would like to install, and that worries the American Civil Liberties Union, the most vocal opponent to the camera project. Nicole Ozer is the ACLU's director for technology and civil liberties in San Francisco.

Ms. NICOLE OZER (American Civil Liberties Union): Video cameras don't reduce crime. What they do have an impact on is personal privacy and peoples' civil rights. And if anything, they just move crime from one corner to another corner.

GONZALES: Ozer cited a study commissioned by the British government published this year. It gives a mixed report card to Britain's extensive nationwide surveillance system and raises questions about its effectiveness in taking a big bite out of crime.

There are also differences in this country. New York and Chicago are expanding their camera programs while Miami Beach and Atlantic City long ago abandoned surveillance systems as ineffective. But longtime Western Addition resident Barbara Mescunis(ph) supports the cameras, even if they only cause criminals to move their activities someplace else.

Ms. BARBARA MESCUNIS (Western Addition Resident): I just don't want 'em doing it in my neighborhood. You don't need to go to sleep at night and hear gunshots in the park. When you have problems like this, civil liberties become a luxury in the minds of most people.

GONZALES: Back at the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, director George Smith says the debate over video surveillance is misdirected because cameras can't replace good community police relations.

Mr. SMITH: I know some people are really excited about the cameras because of what it represents. And it represents some hope that something's going to be done. But, at the same time, man, what is really being done? You know, what is the relationship between the community and the police? You know, right now there's not a really good relationship with the Police Department. That's why they can't get people to step up because there's no trust that, you know, people feel safe.

GONZALES: Three months ago Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced a new community policing program to help address that distrust. Meanwhile, he says he hopes to get the new street cameras up by the end of the year. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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