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Monitors are raising big-brother concerns

Mark Arner / SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE | April 10 2006

Government surveillance hasn't quite reached the degree of interloping foretold in George Orwell's novel “1984,” but it's growing significantly in the name of public safety.

Mobile cameras have become commonplace in public places, capturing faces and places to help authorities prevent or solve crimes.

If you went to the Super Bowl in recent years, or the Mardi Gras celebration in downtown San Diego – picture taken.

If you hopped on the trolley at the Old Town station, drove any number of San Diego's freeways or testified at a large gathering where emotions were expected to run high – picture taken.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union contends that such surveillance can have a chilling effect on political expression by law-abiding citizens. He also said the installation of cameras tends to push crime to adjacent neighborhoods rather than halt it.

But ask National City police about their plans to monitor prostitution on Roosevelt Avenue, or the city of Vista about its plans to crack down on drug dealing and graffiti. You will get unabashed enthusiasm for what they see as another crime-fighting tool.

Exactly what can be taped, who can view the images and how they can be used is largely undefined in most cities. Most of it has been left to the discretion of peace officers who control the cameras.

The high-speed, high-resolution cameras are manned by police, the Sheriff's Department, Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transit System, the region's main transit agency.

Trolley rider Elizabeth Mohr, 25, a law school student, said the cameras are reassuring, to a point.

“It's sort of nice having surveillance here,” Ranson said. “The problem is when you start something like this, it never ends. It spreads like a cancer.

“Eventually, I expect in 50 years or less, we'll probably be taped whenever we walk down a street. Whoever is in power can use that for whatever they want to, and you're never going to know what that is.”

Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU in San Diego and Imperial counties, said while the surveillance is legal, police are creating “a false sense of security and contributing to a total 'information surveillance' society.”

“The public can draw a line here and say, 'No more cameras: We need on-the-ground policing that's proven effective,' ” Keenan said.

Last month in Vista, a Sheriff's Department spokesman announced the city had bought a mobile surveillance camera for about $20,000 with a federal grant to help record “any type of criminal activity.”

Cpl. Stephen Litwin explained that the camera would be bolted onto poles or buildings at undisclosed outdoor public areas and initially would focus on narcotics, graffiti and gang activity.

Litwin said the camera can “zoom in on suspects as they commit crimes.” The information will be transmitted to the Sheriff's Department and continuously recorded, he said.

The Sheriff's Department also videotapes public entrances and hallways in four county courthouses and in the county's seven main jails, said Capt. Glenn Revell.

It has other mobile surveillance cameras that are used to record activity in parks around the county that have problems with vandalism, graffiti or other crime. The equipment also is used to record selected public gatherings, Revell said.

The Metropolitan Transit System, which oversees the bus and trolley system, has video cameras mounted at 10 trolley stations and plans to expand such surveillance to three more stations in Chula Vista by the end of this year.

National City police plan to install four digital video cameras on utility poles along Roosevelt Avenue, from First to Eighth streets this month to target the street's infamous prostitution trade.

The cameras will record in color during the day and automatically switch to a black-and-white mode at night. They also have 360-degree pan, tilt and zoom capabilities, said Lt. Lanny Roark, manager of the project.

The cameras can be operated with a joy stick from police headquarters about a mile away to zoom in on faces or a license plate. Police then can view tapes on a computer monitor.

The new cameras for National City cost about $60,000 and were funded from federal Homeland Security grants, Roark said. The department may install identical cameras to discourage crime at the Plaza Bonita mall, possibly by the end of the year.

In San Diego, police have used mobile video equipment to record large events or parades in recent years when police determined that unlawful activity could occur, said department spokesman Dave Cohen. Examples include the 2003 Super Bowl; a protest march during a 2001 biotech convention; and several Mardi Gras celebrations in the Gaslamp District.

While the placement and type of camera to be used in Vista by sheriff's deputies have been kept secret, National City police have openly publicized their project, including their “DVTel” equipment and camera locations.

National City police also met with a community advisory board to develop a policy about the use of such cameras. It allows monitoring only in public areas, “where courts have held there is no expectation of privacy.”

It requires a public hearing about surveillance locations and signs in English and Spanish advising people there are “public safety” cameras present.

The policy says the cameras will not record sound unless authorized by a court. It prohibits using the cameras to watch specific individuals or groups unless a warrant has been issued by a court. But it does allow recording of public events, demonstrations and crowd activity.

“We're going to be very transparent,” said National City Police Chief Adolfo Gonzales. “We want people to know what we're doing.

“If it disrupts prostitution activity and causes it to move to a nearby neighborhood or park, we're going to have officers there.”

San Diego police have a less detailed policy that begins by discouraging the videotaping or photographing of peaceful demonstrations. It allows such recordings only if a commanding officer has determined there is reason to believe such events have potential for unlawful activity.

Neither the Metropolitan Transit System nor the Sheriff's Department has a policy regulating the use of surveillance equipment in public areas, officials said. But the Sheriff's Department is considering creating one.

“We are in the midst of evaluating the need for that,” Revell said.

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