Federal Grants Bring Surveillance Cameras to Small Towns
Village in Vermont Has Almost as Many as D.C.

David A. Fahrenthold / Washington Post | January 19 2006

Comment: This is happening everywhere globally. Even upon perusing my local village newsletter here in the UK I can read about how a new network of interlinked CCTV cameras are going up due to funding from the government.

This snowy village, in the shadow of Fall Mountain and alongside the iced-over Connecticut River, is the kind of place where a little of anything usually suffices. There are just eight full-time police officers on the town's force, two chairs in the barbershop and one screen in the theater.

A little of anything -- except surveillance cameras. Bellows Falls has decided it needs 16 of those.


Using federal grant money, police plan to put up the 24-hour cameras at such spots as intersections, a sewage plant and the town square. All told, this hamlet will have just three fewer police surveillance cameras than the District of Columbia, which has 181 times Bellows Falls's population.
Similar cameras are already up in the Virginia communities of Galax and Tazewell, where police can pan right down Main Street, and in tiny Preston, Md., with two police officers and five police cameras. An interest in public, permanent video surveillance -- as well as the federal dollars to pay for it -- seems to be flowing down to the smallest levels of American law enforcement.

So far, the growth of small-town surveillance camera systems has not received much national notice. But it already seems to be changing the way such Mayberry-size places are policed.

"People don't notice things" as they used to in Bellows Falls, said Keith Clark, the village's police chief. Instead, "now, technology is there to do that."

Large police departments have only started to embrace public surveillance in the past six years or so, long after privately owned cameras became ubiquitous at banks, ATMs and stores. D.C. police have placed their 19 cameras around downtown and Georgetown, and similar networks have gone up in places such as Baltimore, Chicago and New York.

But, despite the popularity of these systems, some critics still question whether they are any good at stopping crimes in progress. In Washington, for instance, the worst offense caught on police cameras so far seems to have been a car break-in -- in 2001.

"Nothing will be happening most of the time. Multiply that by several cameras with nothing happening, all the time. It's very difficult for any human being to be vigilant," said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, which gets federal funding to write guidelines for police procedures.

Small-town surveillance would seem to offer only a whole lot more nothing. Still, some smaller police departments have been drawn in: An informal search turned up 17 with 100 or fewer officers that either had a surveillance system or plans to put one up. All but two of these departments had either created or expanded their system since 2001.

They come as big as the department in Salisbury, Md., with 88 officers, which plans to put up seven cameras this year. The smallest included the Hoopa Valley Tribal Police in Northern California, where the nine-member force often has no officer on duty from 4 to 8 a.m.

In several cases, funding to buy cameras appears to have come from the federal government, either for community policing or homeland security.


On Maryland's Eastern Shore, for example, Ridgely Police Chief Merl Evans got a homeland security grant, funneled through the state, to pay for five cameras apiece in Ridgely, population 1,300, and Preston, population 573. The cameras went up on water towers, at water-treatment plants and in the two small downtowns.
"It was difficult to be able to find something to use the money for," said Evans, who is also temporary chief in Preston. He said because the grants needed to be used on "target hardening" -- protecting infrastructure -- "the cameras fit in real nice."


Spokesmen for the departments of Justice and Homeland Security said they were unable to compile information about how many small-town camera programs the agencies had funded, or how much had been spent.
Privacy advocates said last week that they were concerned that several of the towns have no policies about who or what could be surveilled with the cameras. That's in contrast to the District, where police have agreed to use the cameras only during demonstrations and civic emergencies, and not to arbitrarily monitor anyone because of race or gender.

In the southwestern Virginia town of Galax, for instance, police have no policy for their two downtown cameras and also haven't put up signs alerting passersby that they're being watched.

"What you do in public, you've got no expectation of privacy," said Police Chief Rick Clark.

Many of the police departments had success stories -- license plates spotted, witnesses located or suspects caught through the new camera technology. In Newnan, Ga., for instance, Chief D.L. Meadows recalled a case in which one of his 20 cameras spotted a drug suspect sitting on his front porch, then provided the chief with an electronic view of the arrest.

"I was sitting in my office, and watched him break and run" as officers arrived, Meadows said. "It was great. I mean, I enjoyed it."

But others say too few officers are available to have anyone watching the cameras full time. Instead, the monitors are in front of distracted dispatchers, or not watched live at all -- police look back at the recorded video only after a crime has occurred.

And even then, depending on where small-town lawlessness pops up, the cameras are sometimes no help.

"We have not actually captured any crimes on video," said Capt. William Zbacnik of the Pittsburg, Calif., Police Department, which installed its network of 11 cameras early last year.

Still, Zbacnik said he believes the cameras are worth it.


"It costs you virtually $100,000 to put an officer on the street, versus $5,000 for a camera," Zbacnik said. "I'd put as many cameras out there as you can."
Although some critics warn that there are hidden costs for camera upkeep and data storage, the market for small-town surveillance doesn't seem to be flagging. This year, a San Diego company called U.S. Relay will start offering a kind of pay-per-view surveillance, in which public cameras are installed and police departments pay to watch them.


So far, Vermont has been one of the few places where police cameras have kicked up a public fuss. Last year in Brattleboro, public outcry helped shoot down a proposal for surveillance of a downtown parking lot.
Also last year, residents in the town of Bristol reacted angrily when they learned that a new police camera could be used to pan across public streets. Finally, officials allowed the camera to remain -- with the caveat that police could not look around unless they thought a crime was occurring or imminent, Selectman Doug Corkins said.

And then there's Bellows Falls, population about 3,050, where police say they would impose strict rules to prevent the cameras from spying on residential areas, and to prevent officers from making tapes of their neighbors' activities.

Still, some people wonder if constant surveillance is really needed here.

"Why?" was the first reaction of Ivy Rawling, 27, who owns Seasonal Soups & Coffee downtown. "This is such a small town," she said.

But one doesn't have to walk far here -- less than a big-city block -- to find someone who believes that the cameras will be worth it because they might stop crime.

Not homicides and terrorism, maybe, as police fear in places such as Washington. But crime nonetheless.

"Within the last two or three years, we've had one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight -- at least eight windows broken" downtown, said Patricia A. Fowler, 56, co-owner of Village Square Booksellers. She went on, "We know we have a problem, and maybe this will solve the problem."

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