Durham, N.C., Buys Wireless Surveillance Cameras

Oct. 20--DURHAM -- Criminals in North/East Central Durham now have more to contend with than just patrol cars and neighborhood watch groups.

The Police Department has bought 13 wireless surveillance cameras to mount at intersections and other spots in the area.

The cameras are 25 feet off the ground and swivel, zoom and tilt. The idea is to deter criminal activity and catch those criminals whose actions come within view.

The city spent $123,680 on the portable cameras and is putting them to use for six months to see how they work. Eventually, the program could be expanded across the city, officials said Friday.

For now, the cameras are on the case in and around Angier Avenue, a haven for prostitution and street-level drug dealing.

"It is not a coincidence that we are here in this section of town," City Manager Patrick Baker said at a morning news conference. "It is a higher-crime area. This should be evidence that we do care [about the neighborhood]."

Surveillance cameras are used in a number of cities, including New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., and London. Police often say they're an effective crime-fighting tool. But civil liberties groups argue they may give people a false sense of security.

The city bought the technology from Teleport Systems, a Baltimore company that has also instituted its wireless system with the Baltimore Police Department.

The idea came from a visit Baker and Mayor Bill Bell made last year to Chicago, where surveillance cameras have lowered crime rates in some parts of that city, Bell said. The Chicago Tribune reported this month that police cameras had "directly assisted" in 1,458 arrests in Chicago over the past 20 months.

The mayor cautioned Friday that the cameras won't make crime disappear.

"We aren't under any illusion that by installing cameras, you will reduce crime completely," he said. "What we hope these cameras will do is complement the police presence."

The cameras are bullet-resistant and have infrared technology for use at all hours. Four police cars will be equipped with small computers that will link with the cameras, and the camera feeds will also be visible at a nearby substation, police headquarters and at Durham's 911 center.

Should anyone want to vandalize the cameras, it's worth noting that each mounted camera is within range of another, which means the cameras keep an eye on one another. The video is full color and very clear, a far cry from the grainy, fuzzy surveillance footage often gathered from convenience store or bank holdups.

The cameras won't be looking into any private homes or businesses, officials said. They're all pointed toward streets, intersections and other public areas.

Ingrid Medlock, principal of the Durham Nativity School on Angier Avenue, said she appreciated the presence of the cameras and the message the city was sending by installing them in her neighborhood.

"We feel safe," she said. "I am very pleased to know someone cares about our students."

Copyright (c) 2007, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.