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Allentown makes case for 'extra set of eyes'
Officials hope to change perception of downtown security with cameras.

The Morning Call | April 14 2006

Ever feel you were being watched?

If Allentown police get their way, and a $100,000 state grant, it won't just be your imagination.

The Allentown Police Department has applied for the money to mount cameras along Hamilton Street downtown and in areas outside the business district that have crime problems.

The goal: to create a sense of security in the downtown business district and fight crime elsewhere.

City officials say Hamilton Street is already one of the safest streets in the city, a claim they have backed up with data in the past. But in case people aren't buying that, the cameras will add a layer of security, Mayor Ed Pawlowski said.

''Changing the perception of security is key,'' Pawlowski said. ''The cameras add a sense of security for some people.''

The city is working with Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, to get the community revitalization grant, which would be awarded through the state Department of Community and Economic Development, Police Chief Roger McLean said.

The grant would pay for 12 to 15 cameras that would be installed in the Hamilton Street business district and in problem areas of the city outside the district that need an extra set of eyes. City officials would not specify where the cameras would be located.

The initiative is part of a growing trend of cities using surveillance technology to fight crime. Cities using the cameras say initial results show cuts in crime, but those conclusions are based on limited data.

Bethlehem has applied for a federal grant to buy four portable digital cameras that could be moved around the city, Deputy Police Commissioner Randy Miller said. They can ''see'' up to 11/2 miles, and could be used for events such as Musikfest or for traffic-congested areas.

''We could use them for places where it would be great to have an officer there if we could, and if we couldn't, we could have the camera there to record things,'' he said.

In Easton, leaders of the city's Weed and Seed community revitalization program and its West Ward Neighborhood Partnership have joined forces to buy a camera that would monitor a park near 12th and Ferry streets.

Baltimore installed more than 250 cameras in May 2005, after talking to law enforcement officials from London, where the cameras are in widespread use.

Baltimore officials say the move has led to less crime in the areas where the cameras have been installed. In the city's West Side downtown area, near Camden Yards, the city has seen a 34 percent reduction in violent crime over the last 10 months, said Beth Hart of the mayor's office of information technology.

Chicago police have used pole-mounted cameras since 2003 to monitor high-crime areas. In 2005, some were fitted with sound detectors to help the city respond to gunshots. There are now 100 cameras scattered around the city.

Philadelphia has placed a referendum on its May 16 ballot asking residents if they support installation of the cameras. Lancaster has 23 cameras monitored by an independent nonprofit group, the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition.

And Doylestown is expected to install six surveillance cameras in three downtown parks that teenagers vandalized last year.

But civil liberties groups caution that besides invading the privacy of law-abiding citizens who happen to stroll into view, the cameras raise a long list of issues concerning how they are used.

''How long are the tapes kept and who has access to them?'' said Larry Frankel, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. ''There are all kinds of other reasons people may want to see what is on those tapes.''

The cameras also may be open to political abuse, Frankel said. What if an office holder wants to punish a neighborhood that didn't vote for him, by posting cameras there or by not doing so when residents want them?

 

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