Easton, Pa.'s police chief looks toward cameras in schools, on streets

Jan. 9--Easton's proposed network of police surveillance cameras is starting to win fans outside the city, even as officials address concerns that the cameras could invade privacy.

Police Chief Larry Palmer, who tried to reassure critics at a meeting Thursday in the city, also has talked with leaders in neighboring Wilson about expanding the planned network of wireless cameras.

"If we can put up some cameras in the borough and tie into Easton's system, it wouldn't cost that much," said Borough Council President Leonard Feinberg, adding that Wilson council is to discuss that plan Monday.

Easton has secured a $216,250 federal Department of Justice grant for security upgrades around Paxinosa Elementary School, just a block away from the site of a 2007 triple homicide in the city's West Ward.

The grant is to be pooled with money from the city, Easton Area School District and the Easton Housing Authority for a total of more than $500,000, Palmer said at Thursday's meeting of the city's Public Safety Committee.

Most of those funds are to go toward the camera system, he said, but some would pay for lower-tech security improvements around the school, such as doors that are more secure.

The chief also promised the cameras won't peer into windows or track people as they walk down the street.

"The bottom line is, I understand the concerns," he told Peter Crownfield of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee of the Lehigh Valley. Palmer added that the city can't afford some of the features that most worry Crownfield, such as tracking or facial-recognition software.

Crownfield, of Bethlehem, said afterward he believes that cameras aren't an effective way to control crime, but he was encouraged by Palmer's approach.

"There's reason to believe that they will make sure the civil liberties protections are in place," Crownfield said. "It is targeting a specific area, responding to a certain need."

However, a wireless network could make it easy to add additional cameras in locations far from the school. If the planned camera network can expand into Wilson, Feinberg said, it might be able to stretch all the way to Easton Area High School in Palmer Township.

Parts of Allentown already have police surveillance cameras, and Bethlehem police are rolling out a similar system.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.