Charleston, S.C., security camera project gains support

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen spent the past year easing concerns and building support for putting the Holy City under the all-seeing eyes of video surveillance cameras.

Momentum seems to be building for the plan, and even some early skeptics say the chief has won them over. Now, Mullen just has to find a way to pay for the project.

The city was optimistic that it could win a $435,000 federal homeland security grant to buy the cameras. After all, Charleston must safeguard one of the nation's busiest container ports, an integral hub for shipping and commerce. Alas, the federal government apparently saw more pressing needs and notified the city last week that Charleston didn't make the cut.

Mullen and supporters of the project said they will press on and look for money elsewhere. They see the cameras as an important tool to help police curb crime, watch for signs of trouble and gather evidence.

Video surveillance has become more commonplace across the country, with cities such as Chicago making wide use of the technology. One study found that more than 200 municipalities are installing cameras to improve public safety. But questions remain about the effectiveness of the technology and the potential for cameras to infringe on residents' privacy and civil rights.

Mullen heard these same questions when he shepherded a similar video surveillance program as a police commander in Virginia Beach, Va. He said he is sensitive to residents' concerns and is working to make sure the community is comfortable with the plan before the police department proceeds.

Mullen has been working with a 10-member citizens advisory committee to develop policies and procedures for how and where the cameras would be used, who would have access to the footage and how long the videos would be stored. While some details are being worked out, police insist the cameras will not be used to spy on residents in their homes.

"All the cameras would be in public places," Mullen said. "We're not looking to hide anything from anybody. Our belief is that the more visible they are, the better off for everyone."

Charles Rhoden, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, serves on the advisory committee and is convinced the cameras would be a boon for city. "I haven't heard from anyone who's against it."

Rhoden pointed to a recent string of early morning burglaries of the lower peninsula that left residents on edge. The presence of video cameras might have deterred the burglar or helped police catch him in the act, he said.

City Councilman Gary White, who also serves on the committee, said he is confident Charleston will find a way to pay for the project. A number of downtown neighborhood associations not only want the cameras, but are willing to pay for them as well. Some businesses and institutions also are considering allowing police to tap into their existing video-surveillance systems to bolster coverage, White said.

Mullen said police are "pretty close" to having a solid plan in place, and some existing grant money might allow them to begin building the infrastructure for the video system.

Victoria Middleton, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said the city might be best served by starting off slowly with a pilot program and assessing the results before spending a lot of money on a system that might not be effective.

"Our view is that they are costly and they haven't been proven in deterring crime," she said. "A lot of communities have found that improvements like improved lighting, foot patrols or more community policing are more effective."

Middleton said the ACLU also is concerned about the potential for racial profiling and encroaching on people's privacy with the cameras.

City Councilman Jimmy Gallant expressed similar concerns earlier this year, worrying that the cameras simply would be dumped in the African-American community. Gallant has since changed his mind after speaking with the chief, and he now supports the project.

"I think the chief's intent is to protect people in all parts of the city," he said. "His wholehearted concern is one of safety."

Mullen said the cameras won't target any one group or area. They will be used around places such as the port, in public spots where large gatherings occur and in high-crime areas identified through statistical analysis. Wireless technology would allow for the cameras to be moved as needs change, he said.