Smile for the camera: Popular spots in downtown Merced under surveillance

A surveillance camera that has been placed throughout the downtown area. This one was placed on Main and K Streets.

Dec, 11, 2009
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG A surveillance camera that has been placed throughout the downtown area. This one was placed on Main and K Streets. Dec, 11, 2009 Merced Sun-Star

Soon there will be more eyes watching you in the city of Merced.

The city is in the final stages of installing a $93,000, eight-camera video surveillance system meant to prevent crime downtown.

Not yet online, the system will be part of a wider net of cameras monitored by the Merced Police Department, which will include video surveillance at three Merced high schools as well as private businesses that want to be part of the system, say city officials and the police department.

“Think of the cameras as an extra police officer who’s available to watch over particular locations,” said Mike Conway, spokesman for the city.

Despite the city’s efforts to increase public safety and prevent vandalism, civil liberty groups and several studies have raised questions about the effectiveness of surveillance cameras. The growing use of video surveillance has also raised worries about the civil rights implications of an increasingly watchful government.

The council voted unanimously for the cameras in June of this year after directing staff to look into procuring a camera system.

The system will be integrated with the city’s existing cameras and surveillance systems. For instance, police cars have cameras that turn on when the cars reach a certain speed or when they turn on their blue and red lights, said police spokesman Lt. Andre Matthews. Some day police officers will be able to access the wireless cameras downtown from their cars.

Along with the new system, there are already six portable still cameras in some parks and other areas with motion detectors to deter and record vandals, said Matthews.

The police department is also looking into installing cameras at some intersections to record accidents and catch people who run red lights.

The June staff report on the cameras given to Merced’s City Council said the system’s main purpose was for graffiti abatement and crime deterrence. “Many crimes would have continued or remained opened without the help of video evidence,” noted the report. “With the constant vigilance of a video surveillance system, the city of Merced will have the ability to passively monitor areas of the city as well as refer back to previously recorded video to help with the successful prosecution of those that would choose to do harm to our citizens, guests and businesses.”

Even without an extensive system to access at all times, the police have access to most private cameras, said Matthews. “Just about anywhere you go you can pretty much guarantee you will be under surveillance,” he said. There are so many cameras out there that if something happens oftentimes the police can get video from a variety of sources, he said.

While the use of surveillance cameras increases throughout the city, the effectiveness of such cameras as crime prevention tools is still up for debate.

Jeff Lewis, information technology director with the city, said a group of city staffers visited cities that already have cameras in place. He said in several cases crimes were caught on tape. Those cameras taped a shooting, a shoplifter, taggers and attacks. He said the footage helped in making arrests. City staff did not collect evidence proving or disproving the cameras’ effectiveness aside from anecdotally.

But Conway said when the City Council directed staff to look into buying the new surveillance cameras, it did not ask for evidence of their effectiveness.

The American Civil Liberties Union has issued several reports detailing the growth of surveillance cameras, as well as the lack of evidence for their efficacy.

The group’s 2007 report — “Under the Watchful Eye: proliferation of video surveillance systems in California” — illustrates the sheer number of camera systems in California. Thirty-seven cities have some type of video surveillance, and 18 of those are extensive. None of these jurisdictions has conducted a comprehensive study on the cameras’ crime prevention ability. The study also found that “surveillance cameras will not improve public safety, and limited funds can be better spent on programs that are both proven effective and less invasive, such as improved lighting, foot patrols, and real community policing.”

Several recent studies show that the presence of cameras has had little or no effect on preventing crime, noted the ACLU. For instance, a 2008 UC Berkeley study of San Francisco’s 68 cameras found they had no effect on violent crimes but resulted in a small dip in property crime.

Another 2008 study at the University of Southern California showed that a similar system in a part of Los Angeles had no effect on crime.

The ACLU’s report pointed out the civil liberty implications of increasing surveillance, too. “Government-run surveillance can radically alter the relationship between law enforcement and the public,” said the report. “It creates the potential for the government to monitor people in public space, in a way envisioned only in futuristic novels.”

Conway reassured residents the city is not setting the system up so it can “watch” people or intrude on their privacy.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.