Columbia, S.C., Plans Municipal Surveillance System

Dec. 12--Cameras will watch over city

Columbia officials want to proceed with plans to install 12 security cameras that see and hear and could alert police to crime as it happens.

The city is accepting proposals to develop a comprehensive security system that will include the cameras, Mayor Bob Coble said Monday.

While the city's intent is clear, many factors remain undecided -- such as where the cameras will be located, how much they will cost and how the city will pay for them.

Coble and Columbia Police Chief Dean Crisp want the cameras to be posted in high crime areas and public places that draw large crowds, such as Five Points and the Colonial Center.

He said he couldn't estimate how much the system would cost.

Crisp said the cameras will be the "eyes and ears" of the police department while freeing up officers to be other places.

"We believe (the security camera system) will absolutely, without question, make the city safer," Crisp said.

He cited the 90 percent drop in crime in parking garages in downtown Greenville after the city installed cameras.

"Several businesses already have security cameras," city manager Charles Austin said. "We believe we have a responsibility, from the city's perspective, to set up security cameras on a broader basis."

Coble said he couldn't estimate how much the system would cost.

For now, the security system will be funded through the city's budget, but Coble said he hopes to find federal money to help defray costs.

The system will allow the city to add more cameras later and incorporate the 22 cameras at Drew Wellness Center and several mobile cameras the city uses for undercover operations.

"You simply just can't have a couple of cameras. Rather, you need a system that will be part of an arsenal," Coble said.

The city purchased 22 cameras -- five outside and 17 inside -- which record 24 hours a day at Drew Wellness Center, said Scott Riley, assistant manager.

The cameras have face-recognition capabilities.

The exterior cameras can rotate 360 degrees, capture images about a quarter of a mile away, and zoom in tight enough to catch license plate numbers on cars at the convenience store across the street, Riley said.

"If the camera was at a different angle, we could read the menu on the wall in (the restaurant across the street)," he said.

The images the digital cameras record are stored for 30 days, he said.

So far, the cameras have mostly caught people loitering, Riley said.

"It's just a deterrent. They're very visible to the public. They're where they are so people can see them.

Until additional lights and cameras are installed around the walking track in back of the facility, Riley said, desk staff uses the cameras to keep an eye on the area.

Copyright (c) 2006, The State, Columbia, S.C. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.