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Toronto police board eyes surveillance system

TIMOTHY APPLEBY / Globe And Mail | October 9 2006

In a move likely to stir some civil-liberties concerns, the Toronto Police Services Board yesterday approved in principle a $2-million pilot project to install fixed closed-circuit television cameras at high-crime locations.

Up to 15 cameras would be deployed, paid for by the provincial Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. The move is reflective of a growing law-enforcement trend in other countries, most notably Britain, where upward of four million closed-circuit security cameras are in daily use.

Most of those four million cameras are not police-operated but owned by shopping malls, banks and gas stations. Others are on highways and in train stations. Canada, too, already has a big network of private-sector and government-operated CCTVs.

But while several Canadian police departments, including Vancouver's, have sought to install their own systems, the only one in place is in Hamilton, where a linked system of cameras lets police monitor the downtown core 24 hours a day.

The results have been “fantastic,” said Sergeant Mike Webber of the Hamilton police, citing a reduced crime rate and several recent incidents where arrests were made quickly because of digital footage.

However, the Toronto experiment, to be launched in North York's 31 Division and Scarborough's 42 Division, would be different. Neighbourhoods in both divisions have experienced high rates of violent crime.

There are no plans to watch the screens continuously. Instead, the cameras will merely record the scene and retain the videotape for up to 72 hours. Unless there is reason to investigate an incident, the tape would roll over, erased by fresh footage. Moreover, the cameras would be clearly visible and identified.

That's not to say police wouldn't be able to tune in whenever they choose.

The pilot program “will not include scheduled unsupervised active monitoring,” Police Chief Bill Blair's draft proposal states.

But, with a nod to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it also declares that the Toronto Police Service has no intention of “engaging in the close watch of persons through CCTV but in the observation of public spaces in areas identified through crime analysis and community concern.”

The distinction between occasional use and constant surveillance is key, board chairman Alok Mukherjee said yesterday.

“This can be an effective tool for deterring crime, but I think we have to be fairly careful about the implications vis-à-vis privacy and the possibility of misuse,” he said.

“There's a big difference between observing behaviour and surveillance. We have to make sure we're not doing anything surreptitious.”

That's always a concern of provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, who worked closely with the Toronto police in drawing up a broad plan. So far, Ms. Cavoukian is content, saying yesterday that her office is encouraged by the force's “intention to adhere to the IPC's guidelines” in deploying the cameras.

Her counterpart in Alberta is similarly cautious, as Calgary ponders the merits of placing more closed-circuit cameras in public places in a bid to deter or catch trouble-makers.

Alberta's Information and Privacy Commissioner, Frank Work, who has previously deemed CCTV cameras an acceptable but “extraordinary” law-enforcement tool, said yesterday he has asked that privacy implications be thoroughly researched before approval takes the form of a new bylaw.

Toronto police have used mobile closed-circuit cameras before, during such big celebrations as Caribana and the Taste of the Danforth street festival. But the new ones would be semi-permanent.

A series of community consultations will be held, designed to help frame ground rules for the cameras.

“I don't think there is any great opposition to having CCTV,” Mr. Mukherjee said, “but I think board members will want to see that it's used properly. We've heard the term Big Brother — watching over the city — and we don't want that.”

It had been hoped the cameras would be operational by the end of April, but the coming civic elections and holiday season will likely push that date back.

In Britain 15 months ago, CCTV cameras at a London subway station were instrumental in helping police identify the four suicide bombers who killed 52 people and injured hundreds more in a co-ordinated series of attacks. Since then, countries as diverse as Australia, Germany, Singapore and Uganda have moved toward speeding up the installation of CCTV cameras as crime-fighting devices.

And in some U.S. cities, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, they have been in place for years.

Skeptics such as British criminology professor John Ditton of the University of Sheffield, however, question the effectiveness of CCTV cameras. One problem is the quality of the images, which are often grainy. Up to 80 per cent of the pictures are unusable, Prof. Ditton told Australian lawmakers last year after the London bombings.

Another flaw is the “soft-balloon” effect: Place pressure on criminals with cameras that are openly visible and miscreants will simply avoid those locations, an argument Chief Blair acknowledged while outlining the pilot project, which will be re-examined by the board Oct. 19.

The cameras must, therefore, be part of a broad crime-management program, his proposal states.


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