Small Towns Turn to Surveillance Cameras to Keep Policing Costs Down

SANBORN, Minn. - Sanborn has 176 homes and businesses. There's no school, no grocery store and no traffic light.

But it's right up there with bigger cities in one respect: surveillance video cameras recording activity on its main streets.

A southwestern Minnesota town of 418 people, Sanborn is among a growing number of small communities from New England to California that are using cameras to stretch their law-enforcement budgets. In some towns, video systems were bought with federal Homeland Security money. In some, they have upset drinkers and privacy advocates, been mooned and been vandalized.

It was concern about drug deals, burglaries and suspected anhydrous ammonia thefts that fueled the Sanborn system.

The town has no police force and the Redwood County Sheriff's Office is 23 miles away.

"The system's not there to catch somebody stumbling out of the bar or taking a leak around the corner or see who's going home with who," said Martin Ziegler, owner of Deutschland Meats and a leader of a Neighborhood Watch group that pushed for the cameras.

The nine-camera system is set up to monitor all four streets leading into town and to preserve video images for two weeks. If something happens, city officials or a sheriff's deputy can play back the tapes.

"It doesn't tell us exactly who done it," Mayor Charlie Hosack said, "but it tells us who was in town."

Surveillance cameras have become a staple of urban life. Minneapolis has 29 of them downtown. They're in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Baltimore. London has more than 6,000 in its subway system alone, and the cameras were credited with helping to solve last year's transit bombings.

More recently, video surveillance has spread to such small communities as Bellows Falls, Vt. (population 3,100), Tazewell, Va. (population 4,200) and California's Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation (1,700 members), The Washington Post reported recently.

On Maryland's Eastern Shore, Ridgely (population 1,500) used $7,000 in Homeland Security money to install five cameras, Police Chief Merl Evans said recently, as did nearby Preston (population 550).

Evans said they serve a dual purpose of deterring crime and "hardening" possible terrorism targets such as the town's water-supply system where, pre-camera, kids got in and altered the chlorine mix.

Criteria for Homeland Security grants are so tight ? weapons and generators don't qualify, for instance ? that "it's tough to come up with something to be able to buy," Evans said. "The cameras fit in really well."

The Sanborn City Council talked about seeking Homeland Security money, but used city funds and donations to cover the $28,000 project cost, which includes pricey cameras that provide close-ups of license plates.

"The less you do with the government, the better we are," Ziegler said.

Initial costs of setting up even a small police department could have approached $100,000, city leaders said. For the cameras, operating costs are about $12 a month.

The cameras were installed beginning in November after two suspected drug dealers (later arrested) had taken up residence and townspeople were worried about their children, city officials said. There had been other crimes, and it had been years since Sanborn had its own police force. Contracts for service from nearby towns hadn't worked out, they said.

"We're not worried about the local people," just strangers coming in from out of town, Council member Lois Dammann said.

But at least a few local people are worried.

"For me, the jury's still out," said Warren Gramstad, whose Gramstad Lumber office lost a safe to burglars recently. Sheriff's officers viewed videotapes but couldn't immediately trace the license plate of a suspect car.

The safe was eventually recovered in Iowa.

At least one young man mooned Sanborn's cameras, locals said. But no one would have been watching. The system's computer monitor is in Clerk-Treasurer Judy Trebesch's office, but, she said, "I stay away from it as far as I can."

County Sheriff Rick Morris said that some people "are thinking we're sitting up here in Redwood Falls watching Sanborn, and that's not true." The sheriff's office will be able to tap into the computer system when needed, said Morris, who has seven patrol deputies for the 874-square-mile county.

However, Jerry Ratcliffe, a consultant to the nonprofit Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, said, "Offenders are very good at looking at the position of cameras" and figuring out how to get around them.