El Cerrito, Calif., video surveillance ordinance takes effect

El Cerrito's video surveillance ordinance takes effect today, and police say that cameras installed early have come in handy in at least two cases over the past six months.

The ordinance calls for surveillance cameras at specific types of businesses in El Cerrito, to aid in solving and deterring crime.

"This is a proactive attempt on our part to reduce violence in our community, and keep business owners and patrons as safe as possible," said El Cerrito police Cmdr. Michael Regan.

Firearms dealers, stores that sell liquor, banks, check-cashing businesses, takeout food establishments, secondhand dealers such as pawn shops and stores selling used musical instruments or video games, and convenience stores all fall under the ordinance. The businesses also are required to allow El Cerrito police to inspect the equipment annually.

Regan said about 70 El Cerrito businesses are covered by the ordinance, and the city is working to make sure all comply.

"The majority (of the response) is positive. From the employees' perspective, they see it as a means of increasing their security," Regan said. The cameras have been used to help thwart the sale of stolen property and catch a robber, he said.

The city is offering to reimburse up to 50 percent of the cost of the video surveillance system, up to $5,000, Regan said. The loan would not have to be repaid as long as the business maintains the equipment and passes an annual inspection during the next four years.

Those that don't comply could be fined up to $500 a day. But Regan said he hopes it won't come to that.

"A vast majority of businesses understand what we're doing and why we're doing it," he said.

The idea for the ordinance gained momentum after a takeover robbery at the Red Onion, a popular El Cerrito burger restaurant, in 2007 that left the restaurant's owner dead. Regan said the systems will help solve criminal cases by providing high-quality video of crimes and possibly the suspects involved.

He stressed, however, that the cameras were not meant to spy on people.

"I really want to belie people's fear. This is not a Big Brother thing. It's a security thing," Regan said. The cameras are "looking at the entrances and exits, and the points of transaction or sale. We're not looking at a camera above the aisle, watching what products they buy. We're looking for people who are fraudulently using a credit card or counterfeit money, or committing some type of assault."

Regan added that police would not be monitoring the cameras in real time, and would not have free access to the footage. If a crime occurs and is caught on tape, police would work with the shop's owner to get the video footage.

Those who would like details about the ordinance can visit www.el-cerrito.org/police/cctv.html, or call the El Cerrito Police Department at 510-215-4400.