Winnipeg school district arms buses with video surveillance

As the wheels on the bus go round and round, what's happening way in the back seat?

Winnipeg school bus drivers in the Seven Oaks School Division are now getting enhanced tools to keep track.

The division has installed new digital cameras, so its bus drivers aren't forced to take their eyes off the road to cope with bad behaviour, a move that builds on the limited camera use the division has put in place over the past several years.

It's a smart, creative solution to problems that could otherwise lead to dangerous driving or the overlooking of minor offences.

As schools battle bullying, vandalism and violence, this type of surveillance will likely work well to protect students from these dangers.

As an added bonus, the cameras will also record the licence plates of drivers who speed past school buses with active flashing stop signs.

The division is probably quite comfortable adding this form of surveillance because video monitoring has become a socially accepted method of crowd control over the past decade.

Hanover School Division put cameras in its school hallways this fall, following the lead of River East Transcona School Division, Winnipeg School Division and others who use cameras inside and/or outside their buildings.

Shopping malls, sports arenas, restaurants and other public places have taken countless close-ups of Winnipeggers over recent years, leading us to become more accustomed to the experience. It's a logical progression to move the cameras beyond businesses and school hallways to monitor the ride to and from school as well.

And this form of surveillance isn't far from being rolled out on our city streets, too.

Winnipeg will soon test security cameras in high traffic downtown areas in an effort to prevent or prosecute crime.

Winnipeg police will begin a $440,600 one-year pilot project using 10 video cameras in six different inner-city spots in January.

The current plan is to post three cameras in Central Park, two at Main Street and Sutherland Avenue and two more at the Millennium Library. Merchants Park on Portage Avenue, Air Canada Park at Portage and Carlton Street and the intersection of Main Street and Henry Avenue would each also have one camera.

One reason surveillance has become such a popular method in the quest to reduce crime is because there is some evidence it works.

Cameras have already been installed on the streets of Minneapolis, Toronto, Hamilton, Jasper, Virden, Man., and many more.

In Minneapolis, an estimated 500 arrests were linked to this video evidence in 2006 alone.

On Monday, a public feedback meeting about Winnipeg's soon-to-be-launched downtown cameras drew less than 10 residents, indicating many Winnipeggers seem to agree the debate between monitoring and privacy is all but over.

As Scott Fielding, the city councillor who lobbied for the cameras insists those who don't break the law have nothing to fear.

"If you're walking downtown and have done nothing wrong and are causing no problems, you've got absolutely nothing to worry about," Fielding told the Winnipeg Sun recently.

Obviously, we can't be 100% sure that public cameras will lead to a substantial reduction in crime until we try them here within the unique context of our city.

But if private cameras already aimed at Winnipeg streets are any indication, this plan is likely to succeed.

Winnipeg business surveillance cameras helped police locate high-risk sex offender Joshua Turner after police say he fled a halfway house this spring and broke into two businesses to call phone-sex chat lines and surf for internet porn.

A private security camera recorded the fatal stabbing of a man outside the Maryland Hotel in 2001 and in 2006 another lens caught the image of a suspect dragging two cops from a car while he attempted to speed away.

With any luck, these new school bus and downtown cameras will help keep students from bullying each other and help rid Winnipeg of "crime capital" status.

Of course, there must be some limits in place to ensure the captured images aren't misused.

The recordings should be searched as evidence only after serious personal and property crimes, to avoid wasting resources to locate every person who dares litter or jaywalk.

A one-year test should be enough to prove if the project works to reduce crime and answer a lot of the minor concerns surveillance brings.

If the peering lens of a camera means safer walks down city streets, or safer trips to school, it's definitely worth the cost of a little privacy in public places.