Seeking to thwart crime and keep terrorists and copper thieves away from its aging seaport, Richmond unveiled a squadron of surveillance cameras Wednesday said to be blessed with an unusual intelligence.
The 82 cameras at the port and 34 at crime hot spots can be programmed to recognize certain movements known as exceptions - a crowd gathering, for example, or a person loitering in one spot, falling down, leaving behind a bag or hopping a fence.
An exception triggers an alarm, which prompts a human being - a police officer, dispatcher or port worker - to take a closer look at the footage.
The technology, which has raised concerns from privacy advocates, is another wrinkle in the recent embrace of surveillance by several Bay Area police agencies. And it's not cheap: Richmond is spending more than $2 million on its anti-crime cameras, which are expected to be up and running within six weeks.
The century-old port, which no longer ships containers but does a steady trade in cars and fuel, obtained a separate $2.5 million homeland security grant for the cameras there, which have been on since March.
"There's no expectation that this will solve the problem by itself," City Manager Bill Lindsay said during an afternoon presentation for the media and security industry representatives. "But it's another arrow in the quiver."
Richmond officials, who contracted with ADT Security Services for the surveillance system, are looking to avoid problems San Francisco has experienced with its 70 or so anti-crime cameras. Those cameras haven't deterred violent crime, according to a preliminary study. And because of infrastructure problems, San Francisco has gotten choppy footage.
Janet Schneider, Richmond's administrative chief, said Richmond would monitor its video in real time, unlike San Francisco, where police can request footage only after a crime has occurred. She said Richmond may work with businesses that would buy and install cameras, with the understanding that police could tap into the video feed.
Schneider said the camera technology that can spot unusual movements could hamper illegal dumpers and graffiti artists.
Port officials said the cameras could thwart terrorism by keeping an intruder from launching a vessel from the old World War II shipyards or bombing tanks full of jet fuel. But they said the cameras' primary use would be stopping thieves, including those who lay waste to electrical systems by stripping out recyclable copper.
The plan got a cool response from Mark Schlosberg, who specializes in police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco. He pointed to studies that have shown cameras have little effect on violent crime.
"The proof is in the pudding, and there's rarely any pudding when it comes to these cameras," Schlosberg said. "You'd think a city with a real crime problem would want to invest in something that has proven to work."
He said having cameras flag unusual movements may only heighten privacy concerns, because people engaged in innocent behavior could draw extra scrutiny.
The cameras' installation comes as Richmond has seen a 17 percent decrease in violent crime and a 20 percent decrease in property crime during the first four months of the year from the same period in 2007. However, homicides in the same period rose to 11 this year from seven last year, city records show.