14 Years Later, a City's Surveillance System Finds Itself Outdated

A Pinole dispatcher watched on a television screen as three youths carved initials into a picnic table in Fernandez Park. Minutes later, police snared the trio.

The 1992 incident, then-Lt. John Miner told the Times, exemplified the success of Pinole's video surveillance effort, launched in 1991 over civil liberties advocates' warnings that it reeked of Orwellian "Big Brotherism."

On June 4, two men fired guns from Fernandez Park into the adjacent Park View shopping center, apparently targeting a group of people with whom they may have argued moments earlier, according to police.

No suspects have been identified. No police camera picked up anything.

"There are surveillance cameras, but they aren't functioning the way we would like them to," Police Chief James Rose said last week. "The equipment is old and outdated."

Rose would not say whether the gunmen did not show up on video because no camera was pointed in their direction or because the equipment was nonfunctional or shut off.

Police also declined to say how many cameras exist in town or where they are placed. Assistant City Manager Jim Schutz said cameras are "in the public and commercial areas of Pinole" but could not provide a number.

A reporter doing a quick survey around the Fernandez Park and Senior Center area readily found five cameras or similar devices; one had what appeared to be a glass lens cover virtually opaque with dirt.

Once on the cutting edge of video surveillance technology, Pinole a decade and a half later languishes behind the state-of-the-art.

The City Council in the coming months will discuss hiring a consultant to suggest ways to beef up Pinole's surveillance system and bring it up to 21st-century standards.

The current system "doesn't have all the bells and whistles we'd like to have," Schutz said, "but it's still a valuable asset."

Mayor David Cole said he favors an improved surveillance system.

"We can't have our cops everywhere," Cole said. "They need all the help they can get. Cameras are a good way to give them that help."

In 1991, the city installed eight cameras in Fernandez Park and at the senior center at a cost of about $200,000. In 1992, the City Council allocated an additional $350,000 to put up a surveillance camera at Fitzgerald Drive and Appian Way, according to news reports of the day.

A 1992 Times editorial titled "Big Brother in Pinole?" characterized the installation as the "kind of step-by-step nibbling that leads to serious erosion of rights."

Civil liberties advocates said it violated constitutional guarantees of freedom from infringement by government.

"We can hardly imagine a more obvious symbol of Big Brotherism than images on video cameras pumped into a police station," John Crew, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said at the time.

Police said the cameras would help deter crime, collect evidence and enhance public safety.

The city eventually paid more than $1 million in redevelopment funds to lay out three miles of fiber-optic cable and install about 40 cameras, including 21 in the Pinole Vista shopping center and 10 around the police station, according to a 1998 Times report.

Some of the cameras installed in the 1990s were motion-activated; others were on constantly to be monitored in real time or to record for future viewing.

Pinole police officials did not respond to calls and e-mail messages Wednesday and Thursday inquiring about the effectiveness of the cameras over the years, including how often they contributed to the identification or arrest of crime suspects or how often video footage provided evidence in court.