Durham, N.C., to Create Surveillance Camera Pilot Program

DURHAM -- Surveillance cameras soon will monitor high-crime areas of Durham as part of a $133,500 pilot program approved Thursday.

Mayor Bill Bell flexed his political muscle to push the measure through.

Council members approved the measure 6-1 despite not knowing where the cameras will go or how many there will be. Bell persuaded them to reverse an earlier move that blocked a vote on the item.

Teleport Systems of Baltimore was awarded the six-month contract. Deputy Police Chief Ron Hodge said police want to see whether the cameras deter crime or help catch criminals before installing them permanently.

Bell was absent when the item first was discussed at a Thursday afternoon work session.

Some council members said that they didn't have enough information about the crime-prevention effectiveness of the cameras and that there hadn't been sufficient public input about it.

The council has to vote to suspend its own rules to take action at a work session because the twice-monthly meetings are intended only for information sharing.

Council members split 3-3 on suspending their rules, blocking an up-or-down vote.

Bell took his seat about 15 minutes later and soon asked that the camera proposal be reconsidered.

He said he saw the effectiveness of the cameras during a trip to Chicago hosted by Mayor Richard Daley.

Another vote was taken.

Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden and councilman Howard Clement III, who had initially joined councilman Thomas Stith in blocking a vote, changed course and sided with Bell.

Cameras were approved 6-1, with Stith opposing.

"Clearly there was some concern, and then it all went away in an instant," Stith said. "It's very disappointing we can't have independent thought."

Hodge wouldn't even give a ballpark figure of how many cameras the money would buy. The deputy chief said details of the contract with Teleport still are being negotiated.

Hodge told council members that police aren't sure whether some or all of the cameras will be hidden, which is why he's not disclosing where they will go.

Closed-circuit cameras have been in place for years in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans and London. Whether they do much to prevent or solve crimes depends on whom you ask.

Bell said concerns about privacy issues were raised when the cameras were first proposed in Chicago.

But the results, he said, trumped Big Brother worries.

When a proposal arose to get rid of the cameras, Bell said, "neighborhoods came up in an uproar. They didn't want cameras removed. They wanted more cameras."

Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said cameras don't work and can be abused.

In a statement, she cited ACLU studies showing that not only do cameras not deter crime, "they may in fact have the harmful consequence of giving the public a false sense of security."

"We are sorry to see the city of Durham jumping on this misguided bandwagon," she said.

Ken Gasch, a Durham community activist, said the pilot program should be given a chance. His neighborhood put up a web cam to monitor a street corner frequented by drug dealers. It helped persuade police to step up patrols there, Gasch said.

He said he understands the ACLU's concerns.

"My challenge to those individuals is to go talk to the little lady who's got her kids sleeping in the bathtub because of stray bullets," Gasch said.