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Cameras and crime: police weigh in (06/23/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Who's watching you? The mass electronic monitoring of Americans by the National Security Agency and by "big data" companies has captured public attention lately. However, Americans do not have to be on smart phones to be monitored; they may be on good, old-fashioned "Candid Camera" far more than they realize. This fall, La Crosse will be the latest city in the region to install a system of city-owned cameras around its downtown district to monitor crime. In recent years, the city of Winona considered a similar system. That concept is on hold, Winona Police Department (WPD) officials say, but officers draw heavily on a network of privately-owned cameras that record much of the island city.

In September, La Crosse will complete the $475,000, 41-camera project.

In 2008, the WPD began to look into the concept of installing cameras to help them identify suspects in cases of assaults, burglaries, and other crimes in downtown Winona. Bar fights in particular spurred interest in the project. However, law enforcement information technology staff, local surveillance vendors, and city leaders had trepidations about the cost and feasibility. In 2011, the topic came up again, after a significant crime in another community stirred a renewed interest in the project, said WPD Deputy Chief Tom Williams, who led investigations into the possibility of the downtown camera network. Williams contacted the firm that provides the city of Minneapolis' surveillance system, who reported that an initial look would cost between $3,000 and $5,000 and that a design work would be $8,000 to $12,000.

"It got to that point, but it didn't get any further," Williams said. The state was just beginning to cut back local government aid, he explained, "There was no money available for this."

From consulting with local experts, the WPD already knew that the cost of actually installing a camera system was not likely to be cheap, either. A variety of issues make downtown Winona a challenging place for a camera system. For starters, the fiber-optic cables that would be used to route video feeds to the Law Enforcement Center (LEC) run the wrong way, north-south, meaning that significant work would have to be done to connect the LEC with cameras along the linear, east-west downtown district. There are numerous tall buildings downtown, such as the Kensington and other buildings at the intersection of Third and Johnson streets. Such tall buildings would make it impossible for an individual camera at the location to provide a decent view without a vantage point from high on the privately-owned buildings themselves. Even if business owners were willing to allow the WPD to install the cameras on their buildings for free, the cost of bolting cameras and routing wires would be significant, Williams said. What is more, cameras would need heating and cooling to prevent them from frosting over in winter, or fogging up in humid Minnesota summers.

The cost is "quite a limiting factor," Police Chief Paul Bostrack said. For now, the department is not pursuing the concept. Bostrack said that without grant funding the project is unlikely to ever come to fruition. "I wouldn't want to say that we would never look at it," he continued. "You never know what funding might be available."

"The value is obvious," Williams said. "It is another set of eyes. On a typical evening the city of Winona has four police officers working and it's difficult for them to be every place at once."

Large numbers of sometimes rowdy people leaving downtown bars give officers plenty to try to watch and have led to numerous complaints and incidents, even a shooting and a stabbing, Williams noted.

Cameras can help identify subjects and determine what happened when a crime is reported. "We've had that be very useful for us a number of times," Bostrack said of private cameras' footage used in investigations. In La Crosse, police officials have stated that it saves on officer time during court proceedings. Officers may have to testify for hours while attorneys and judges vet what they witnessed, but if prosecutors can show video from an incident in the courtroom, establishing events is virtually instantaneous.

Beat cops would benefit, too, advocates say. "The timeliness issue is big," Williams explained. The WPD is already often able to get footage from local businesses and government-owned buildings following an incident, but it can take days. A system that provides a constant feed to the LEC would enable dispatchers to provide responding officers with information within moments on what happened, where victims are, who possible suspects are, and whether any weapons are present. Williams noted that while cameras help identify suspects, they can also help establish innocence.

Cameras are already here

While a city-operated camera network in downtown Winona may still be a mere wish for Winona police, very real security cameras already cover much of the city. City Hall, the East and West Recreation Centers, the LEC, and the Courthouse all have cameras, as do numerous apartment buildings, businesses, residences, and the Winona State University campus. There are hundreds of security cameras.

"Over the years, more and more places are installing their own as a way to record things that have happened," Bostrack said.

"Convenience stores, banks have cameras, some eating establishments, liquor stores have cameras, grocery stores have videos, and there are a lot of private homeowners," Williams observed. "It's a little bit more prevalent than people realize." 

 

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