Richmond, Calif., begins installing camera system

Electronic eyes soon will focus on Richmond city streets in a $1.4 million attempt to curb crime and blight.

Crews began installing a system of 26 wireless cameras and their infrastructure around the city last week that police hope to use for everything from snaring evidence in shootings at high-crime corners to catching illegal dumpers, graffiti artists and crosswalk-running motorists.

The move comes after years of urging from neighborhood groups and elected officials eager to reduce street violence. It also comes over the past concerns of privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

The project uses modern technology and, unlike camera systems in some other cities, includes built-in room to grow, Deputy Police Chief Ed Medina said.

"Some other cities have chosen to just slap up some cameras without any future planning involved," Medina said. "But we're looking toward tomorrow. Ours has built-in capacity for expansion" and improvement.

Some of the cameras will sit on power poles at high-traffic intersections, public parks or high-crime corners. Others -- some as small as a tube of lipstick -- are portable and hideable, and can be used by detectives and code enforcement for targeted police operations.

All use video analytics technology, which uses computer software to screen and automatically record images when specific kinds of movement or activity enter a camera's view.

If someone loiters near a regularly graffitied wall for more than a set amount of time, for example, the camera will record it and notify police at the station.

The department eventually hopes to add technology that will allow the camera images to be beamed directly into the mobile computers of patrol cars, Medina said.

"It's not designed to watch John Q. Public working in his yard," Medina said. "It keys on very specific activities."

The department drafted a citizens committee to help develop policy for use of the system, which cost the city about $1.4 million. ADT, the vendor, installed a similar system of cameras at the Port of Richmond this year, paid for with about $2.5 million in federal homeland security grant funds.

"The business community is very excited about the cameras," said Richmond Chamber of Commerce President Judy Morgan, who sits on the policy committee. "The hope is that just the presence of the cameras will be a deterrent. We're hoping that some of the crime will disappear."

City officials discussed installing closed-circuit cameras for years, at times drawing criticism from privacy-rights advocates. But a firm plan to invest in a system developed in 2006.

In the meantime, some neighborhood groups installed their own camera systems.

Fixed cameras soon will appear at intersections along 23rd Street, near the Civic Center and the Transit Village near Richmond BART, and at Nicholl Park, Medina said. Unincorporated North Richmond also will received eight cameras.