I Spy

About halfway down the stack of papers burying the counter in Christina Kendrick's office is a glossy, four-color flier touting a new generation of video surveillance cameras. The Silent Witness V100, brags the sheet, "can withstand assault from a 9 mm handgun or a 12-gauge shotgun." Looking less like a camcorder than like a squat box with an eye at its center, the camera can capture high-resolution images in accurate color even when there's very little light.

Several months ago, Kendrick drew up a plan to buy four of the cameras to mount on and around Phillips Tower, the subsidized apartment building she manages at the corner of 10th Avenue and 22nd Street in Minneapolis. Once hooked up, the cameras would beam live images of the high-rise lobby and nearby intersections to residents' televisions via a special closed-circuit channel rented from Paragon Cable.

Kendrick wants to train the cameras on the front door of Phillips Tower, as well as on the intersections of Franklin and Chicago avenues, Franklin and Park avenues, and on the area surrounding a small grocery store a block south of the building. The system will create a video record of events on those corners 24 hours a day and, Kendrick hopes, transform residents of the tower's 107 apartments--all low-income adults, many diagnosed with mental disabilities or chemical dependency--into armchair watchdogs.

Kendrick's idea has been brewing since last summer, when she started attending meetings of the Phillips Weed and Seed anti-crime initiative. A 2-year-old joint federal, state, and city program, the initiative aims to "weed out" drug use and gang activity in select neighborhoods, which it simultaneously seeks to "seed" with business development and new programs. At one of those gatherings, Kendrick heard Lt. Chris Hildreth, co-chair of the initiative's Law Enforcement Subcommittee, report on an FBI training course where cops from other cities talked about pointing video surveillance systems at parks, buses, downtown shopping districts, and other places. The security systems could be paid for by Weed and Seed dollars, he said.

Managers of several area properties expressed immediate interest, Kendrick says. One was the American Indian Business Development Corp., which owns six blocks fronting Franklin Avenue in Phillips, including the Franklin Business Center and the Franklin Circle Shopping Center. Because of a rising number of "crash and dash" car break-ins and other incidents, the Business Center's anchor tenant, Bruegger's Bagels, asked the development company to install a security system, says Executive Director Theresa Carr. An organization of public-housing residents, the Minneapolis High-Rise Representatives Council, also expressed interest in the surveillance systems, but decided to hold off submitting a formal proposal.

Though police currently don't plan to monitor the systems, Hildreth says at some point in the future the MPD might try to combine private and public surveillance into a comprehensive network monitored by officers. Phillips Weed and Seed coordinator Carrie Day-Aspinwall adds that the MPD has offered to train residents in monitoring the cameras and phoning in any crimes they report.

Video surveillance systems are nothing new. For decades they have been fixtures in banks and department and convenience stores. In recent years, as the cameras have become more sophisticated and able to provide clearer images in ever-darker situations, they have moved outside commercial applications. Dozens of cities and police departments throughout the country have installed surveillance systems, and business is booming for the companies that make them. A study conducted in 1997 at the request of the California Legislature found that "a leading [camera] manufacturer reported net earnings of $120 million in 1995, compared with net earnings of $16 million the year before." Just under half of the new systems sold go to public entities, the report noted.

U.S. courts, reasoning that there's no "expectation of privacy" on city streets or other common spaces, have so far allowed video surveillance of public places. Courts have, however, held that the cameras can't record sound--which would constitute an illegal wiretap--and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to hear any case that tests whether the cameras violate Fourth Amendment prohibitions against illegal search and seizure.

Kendrick dismisses privacy concerns about systems like the one she's planning. "If the [Minnesota] Department of Transportation can transmit, so can I," she says, referring to MNDoT's round-the-clock broadcasts from select intersections around the metro area. What's more, she insists, "there is no privacy [around Phillips Tower]--it's an open-air drug market."

Though no one has yet proven that the cameras deter crime, experts say the footage does often help prosecutors. University of Minnesota clinical law professor Steven Simon says that video surveillance in police cars is "a powerful tool for arresting and prosecuting drunk drivers. Drivers who are impaired show a more realistic display of their impairment at the time of their arrest than they do when you get them downtown and they've had a chance to gather their wits."

But Steven Lybrand, a professor of sociology and the director of the University of St. Thomas's criminal justice program, says there are a number of unanswered questions about the cameras' potential effect on a neighborhood. "In effect, this puts the community under 24-hour surveillance," he says. "And although that's legal--anybody can take pictures in public spaces--there's still the issue of community sentiment and sensibility. Even though many residents in a low-income community support a crime-prevention initiative, not all necessarily do." Consider, Lybrand says, that the cameras will record everything people bring into their homes: "Do you really want everyone in the neighborhood to know you just purchased a TV?"

When citizens give up some privacy in exchange for security, they're not always happy with the result. In the late 1970s, Lybrand recalls, residents of a housing project in Chicago gave permission for police to search their homes without warning. The experiment was deemed a failure after residents realized that cops were just as quick to raid innocent people as they were criminals.

Surveillance systems have other potential pitfalls, Lybrand says, including the possibility that the cameras would most likely be installed in low-income neighborhoods, whose residents are already more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for their crimes than those in more affluent areas. Having a "crime cam" in their midst could also cause residents to feel paranoid, he adds; and finally, given gangs' propensity to show off, the cameras might even provoke some crimes. "The community has an absolute right to try whatever it wants," he concludes. "But they have to be concerned for the unforeseen outcomes."

The biggest of these, most experts agree, is the ongoing cost of the systems. According to the California study, several large cities, including Detroit, Miami Beach, and a number of New Jersey communities, tried training cameras on downtown business districts. All eventually abandoned the idea because they were unable to pay for the monitoring of the footage or the maintenance of the networks.

Kendrick's system is encountering financial troubles even sooner. The city of Minneapolis, which administers Weed and Seed funds, hasn't cut checks for her or any other proposed surveillance setup, even though the proposals were approved four months ago. Day-Aspinwall says no one has any idea when the cash might flow. "Maybe I bit off more than I could chew," Kendrick complains as she sifts the pile atop the photo of the Silent Witness, looking for her original proposal. "But by now I feel like I'm the troll under the bridge."


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