Alaska Town Watched by Eighty Security Cameras

The city of Dillingham, Alaska — population 2,400 — has eighty surveillance cameras installed around town and at its port. The cameras were purchased with grant money from the Department of Homeland Security. City councilor Andy DeValpine and barge captain Freeman Roberts talk with Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Another controversy over surveillance is brewing in the remote fishing town of Dillingham, Alaska, population 2400. Dillingham is in the southwestern part of the state, as the locals say, where the tundra meets the sea. And tonight there's going to be a public hearing in Dillingham to discuss the surveillance cameras that have been installed. 80 cameras around the port and around the town purchased with grant money from the Department of Homeland Security.

Dillingham's police chief says it's better to be safe than sorry, but some residents are appalled and ask, why a town without a single stoplight needs a super-sized surveillance program. We called upon two Dillingham residents who have different views of the cameras. Barge captain and former mayor, Freeman Roberts and city councilman Andy DeValpine.

Mr. ANDY DEVALPINE (City Councilor, Dillingham, Alaska): The City Council, I guess, I see them as, well, useful in a broad sense. Now, we didn't think we were striking a blow for the global war on terror when we approved the resolution, but day in and day out, I see them as providing a police presence, much like a policeman sitting along the side of the road looking for speeders. But in more locations.

You know, we have some looking at the dock right now. And over the last 10 or 15 years three people have frozen to death in an area that is now illuminated, or visible through cameras. I think the case could be made that had those cameras been installed at that time, this person, or these people, would have been picked up and saved.

We've had people drowning, dying, alcohol-related deaths. A couple in the last three years. Now these numbers may not sound large, but here, you know, one or two deaths reverberate quite broadly and deeply.

NORRIS: I'd like to bring Freeman Roberts into this. Do you buy this argument that, that the cameras have some utility in, in helping protect the community? Or help people who might be in peril for some reason?

Mr. FREEMAN ROBERTS (Barge Captain): Well actually I don't. The cameras are almost a half a mile from the boat harbor, and as I understand it, the cameras take pictures every so often. So if somebody was to fall in the harbor and drown, it would be a while before any response would be there. As far as freezing to death on the beach, that could have happened anywhere. I don't think that would have prevented anything.

NORRIS: No, but when you look at something that happened in the subway bombings in London, now Dillingham is a long way away from London, and a very different community to be sure. But when you look at what happened there, and how police were able to make arrests fairly quickly because of the cameras that were installed all throughout the city of London, does that make you rethink that maybe in the rare event that something might happen there in Dillingham, that this might be a good idea?

Mr. ROBERTS: Well it didn't stop the bombings. What they did was arrest the perpetrators. You know, if you can stop the bombings it would be one thing, but catching the perpetrators is another thing. Dillingham is a pretty remote place. You know, the idea of a terrorist coming to town is, is extremely remote. You know, Dillingham is icebound three or four months out of the year, and it's not even, I can't imagine anybody coming to Dillingham. It, it's crazy.

Mr. DEVALPINE: Can I throw in a little odd bit of history?

NORRIS: Sure.

Mr. DEVALPINE: You know, obviously the chances of a terrorist attack here are unlikely and remote. It doesn't mean it's not possible. And here's the odd little bit of history, in World War II the Japanese parachuted bombs onto the west coast, and into Alaska, even. Now I'm sure nobody thought, even conceived that anybody would try something like that. So, for better or worse, you know, the nature of terrorism is unpredictability.

NORRIS: As either of you go about town, are you aware that you're being monitored by these cameras? And do you change the way you move about the town?

Mr. ROBERTS: Well it doesn't change the way I move about the town, but I am aware of the cameras. It's awful hard to miss them once you know where they're at. There's a cluster of them right in the middle of town on top of the City Hall, and no matter what direction you go you're, you're looking at a camera. So, yeah, I, I'm aware of them. I don't feel comfortable being watched, and the people who, who want the cameras taken down pretty much feel the same way.

NORRIS: That's barge captain Freeman Roberts. We also heard from City Councilman Andy DeValpine, talking about the 80 surveillance cameras that watch over Dillingham, Alaska.

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