By January, Boston will install about 40 sophisticated surveillance cameras in Chinatown, along Boston Harbor, and in high-crime areas, probably including Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday he believes the digital cameras can be an effective tool against crime. "Any technology or any operation that we can use that will help us combat violence in the streets of our city, we're going to look at very seriously," he said in an interview.
Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole said yesterday that the city eventually plans to link its cameras with others already in transportation hubs, housing developments, and private businesses to help stem a surge in crime.
"We hope to be creative," she said in an interview. "If the drug unit wants to monitor cameras in the areas where there's been drug activity, they can do that."
The cameras to be installed in coming weeks were purchased for and used during the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, but have been shelved since. Police originally said the cameras would go up in Chinatown in February.
The delay, officials said, involved getting permission from businesses and homes to mount the cameras, as well as the technical difficulties of wiring the cameras.
Civil libertarians, however, said Boston should keep the cameras on the shelf.
Sarah Wunsch, a staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said yesterday that cameras have not been effective in combating crime in Britain, where they have been commonplace since the 1990s. She also said the public should be concerned about the cameras' power to give the government more information on individual habits.
"We're talking about the government and the police choosing to use high-powered surveillance cameras out in public, where people think the government is not spying on them," Wunsch said. "We will turn into a very different society . . . `Who are you meeting with? What book are you reading?' Americans ought to think about it."
O'Toole said she has been responsive to the ACLU's concerns, saying the department agreed to dispose of tapes from the cameras after 90 days.
On Halloween night, Chelsea became the first Boston-area municipality to activate a digital camera surveillance network. It plans to install 27 cameras to cover the entire city.
In Chinatown, some residents said they are happy to be the first community that would get the cameras. Officials said the neighborhood will get eight or nine cameras in the next month.
Karen Chen, a community organizer with the Chinese Progressive Association, said residents are concerned about possible privacy infringements, but most are more worried about their safety.
A preliminary count of two homicides, 211 robberies, and 292 aggravated assaults through Nov. 13 in the police district covering downtown and Chinatown has left residents unnerved. Citywide, shootings increased by 28 percent through Oct. 23, compared with the same period last year.
Others said cameras aren't enough to fight crime.
"I think much more police officers would be helpful," said Tim Ruan, the former administrative director of the Chinatown Residents Association.
The department's patrol force of about 1,300 is down nearly 200 from five years ago, a decline the city attributes to federal and state funding cuts.
Police Superintendent Robert Dunford, who is spearheading the camera project, said the technology is intended as a tool to help police prevent and solve crimes.
"If we had a crime and we knew the area had been under surveillance, obviously we would pull the tape and we could identify who had been in the area prior to the event," he said.
Dunford said the cameras will also be used to help determine police deployment. He said there are thousands of cameras in the city to potentially link with, and he cited Chicago as a model.
Jennifer Martinez, a spokeswoman for the city of Chicago, said there are roughly 2,000 cameras in Chicago's network, which covers housing developments and transportation centers, but not private businesses.
Andrew Velasquez, director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications in Chicago, said city officials believe the cameras, which were installed starting in 2001, are partly responsible for a decline in crime. Chicago reduced its homicide rate by 25 percent last year, resulting in a 38-year low.
"Having that extra set of eyes and ears out there has contributed to the Chicago Police Department's crime-fighting strategy," Velasquez said.
Two dozen cameras are outfitted with gunshot detection software. "There are acoustic sensors built into the cameras, so if there's a gunshot detected within the vicinity of the camera, that camera will focus on the area where there has been a shooting," Velasquez said. "There will be an alarm or an alert to tell the person watching."
O'Toole said she hopes to buy more cameras for Boston soon and is looking for ways, including donations from businesses, to pay for them, since federal homeland security money only covers the cost of the 19 cameras to be placed along the harbor to help guard tankers carrying liquefied natural gas against terrorist threat.
She said she only wants to put cameras in areas where there is strong community support for them.
However, she said the issue is raised at most crime watch meetings, suggesting widespread interest.