Buffalo takes new anti-crime camera system live

Apr. 23--A police officer watched the corner of Sycamore Street and Goodyear Avenue, keeping an eye out for trouble. She also was watching the corner of East Lovejoy and Gold streets. And the intersection of Fillmore and Jewett avenues. And she did it all from Police Headquarters in downtown Buffalo.

Buffalo's new anti-crime camera system is up and running, and police are now monitoring 43 locations across the city from a high-tech surveillance monitoring room.

"We will be one of the elite camera systems in the United States," Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson told reporters Tuesday as he joined Mayor Byron W. Brown in showcasing the technology.

For the last eight months, crews have been installing and testing cameras in neighborhoods throughout Buffalo. By the end of the year, more than 100 cameras will be placed in high-crime areas, business districts and in locations deemed important to homeland security.

City officials unveiled the system's nerve center -- a monitoring room that includes a wall covered with video screens and several surveillance stations equipped with monitors.

With the twist of a joystick, a camera stationed downtown zoomed in on a vehicle several hundred yards away, providing a clear view of the license plate number.

Another camera provided such a crisp image of an East Side street corner that scraps of litter could be noticed.

The technology is getting good reviews from many city residents, according to the head of a coalition that represents more than 380 neighborhood groups.

"Everybody is really excited about the system," said Linda J. Freidenberg, president of the Board of Block Clubs of Buffalo and Erie County. "People are hoping it will end up reducing crime."

Another camera was recently installed at Tonawanda Street and Riverside Avenue.

David M. Spinda has lived in Riverside for more than a half-century and is a member of the Public Safety Committee of the Black Rock-Riverside Good Neighbors Planning Alliance.

"I think people feel a lot more comfortable, and they want more cameras," Spinda said. "It's like candy -- everybody wants more. But this is a start."

Police officials also discussed plans to add new high-tech features that will allow the devices to detect gunfire and alert monitors to other suspicious activities.

Eventually, the system will be able to stream video into police cars, giving officers new vantage points as they arrive at crime scenes.

Brown said the pilot project launched last summer has convinced city officials that the technology will be a huge benefit.

"The system, from what we have been able to see and from the work that has already been done, is going to be an amazing crime-fighting tool," Brown said.

The cameras have made a difference during the test phase when they were only monitored sporadically, officials said. Numerous arrests have been made as a result of activity captured by some cameras, including some drug-related arrests.

"Crime in neighborhoods around these cameras seems to be drying up," Brown said.

Police Capt. Mark Makowski, who has been overseeing the initiative, is convinced that cameras will help deter crime and provide evidence to law enforcers. For example, a University at Buffalo student was brutally beaten last month on Main Street near Winspear Avenue. There was no functioning surveillance camera at the intersection at the time of the attack, but there's one there now.

Police officers on light duty have been monitoring some cameras on a 24/7 basis since early March. This summer, civilians will be hired to perform monitoring chores.

The city plans to spend up to $5 million for the 100 cameras, financing the project through state grants. In the longer term, the Police Department hopes to expand the system by obtaining viewing rights to cameras that the Buffalo Public Schools and the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority plan to install around some of their properties.

One 87-year-old lifelong resident of the city's Kaisertown section told The Buffalo News that a camera recently installed at Clinton and Weimar streets has chased away a lot of problems, including loitering.

"But we could still use a police satellite center [in Kaisertown], especially now with summer coming," the man said.

Gipson agreed that even sophisticated surveillance cameras can't replace officers.

"They help enhance our ability, but the real job of policing is still left to boots on the ground," Gipson said.

A new class of officers will hit city streets this summer.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns that the camera network could invade people's privacy. Brown downplayed the concerns, saying he has only heard a clamor from block clubs requesting cameras.

Gipson said he knows of only one property owner who expressed concern during the pilot project; she wanted to make sure the camera couldn't zoom in on her window. Gipson said the system has filters to block out specific areas, so cameras can't, for instance, take images of residential windows. Gipson insisted that the Police Department has no desire to "play Big Brother."

Copyright (c) 2008, The Buffalo News, N.Y. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.