Philadelphia to Consider City CCTV System

At the bank, on the road, in the supermarket checkout line. Within the reaches of the parking garage, the office elevator, the hospital lobby. Almost everywhere, it seems, a video camera is capturing the most mundane of daily activities.

Now there's talk of letting Philadelphia police use video-surveillance cameras as a crime-fighting tool.

State Rep. Jewell Williams (D., Phila.) has long supported the idea. District Attorney Lynne Abraham has called for the technology in high-crime areas. Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson said he was impressed at a recent conference when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley gave a presentation on how video surveillance had helped his police department and his city.

Now Johnson plans to send a team to Chicago, which has placed its cameras atop light poles, to study the department's methods.

"It can help us. It definitely can't hurt us," Johnson said of surveillance cameras. "It's like having police officers out there but not really standing there. It would enhance what we're doing now."

Some argue that the cameras only displace crime, that they further the divide between police and the public - and that Americans are increasingly losing the right to privacy.

"It captures not just what bad people do. It captures all of us. And we have a right, until we've done something wrong, to walk around and do what we want," said Larry Frankel, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

"We supposedly criticized totalitarian governments because they kept tabs on their citizens at all times of day, and now we are falling susceptible to what we faulted those totalitarian governments for doing," Frankel added.

Johnson disagreed.

"People have the mentality it's a 'Big Brother' thing," he said, "but if Big Brother can stop crime and violence, that's exactly what we need, and I'm for it."

Added Williams: "We're in a war against crime and violence, and we need every tool we can get. I know people are concerned about violations of their rights, about privacy, but I don't think that should be an issue when kids are being shot down in the streets."

In Chicago, officials say the cameras - along with other crime-fighting initiatives - contributed to the city's 25 percent drop in homicides between 2003 and 2004. Police have 31 cameras and will soon add 15 more.

Meanwhile, New Orleans police added cameras to their arsenal in January. Baltimore, which already has cameras aimed at its Inner Harbor, expects to add 70 more to high-crime areas in coming months.

"The only issue we had was with people in some neighborhoods complaining because we weren't putting them up there," said Matt Jablow, the police public-affairs director for Baltimore.

Muhlenberg College in Allentown installed five surveillance cameras in 2003, campus safety director Ken Lupole said. Now it has 16 cameras, and plans for 16 more, to watch 2,150 students on the 78-acre main campus.

The cameras, Lupole said, "are extra eyes for us" and complement the college's 13-member police force. They've been effective, he said. Last year, for example, three cars were broken into in one campus parking lot. This academic year, there have been no such break-ins.

When two students had a fight on a street corner, school authorities were able to pull the footage for use in their disciplinary hearings, Lupole said.

"It's common practice," Lupole said of the cameras. "My daughter graduated from a high school here that has 78 cameras throughout the school. You're on video all the time. It's more commonplace now than it's ever been. If the technology is there, why not use it?"

Philadelphia public schools have used surveillance for more than a decade, spokesman Vincent Thompson said. The district has cameras in about 70 schools and expects to announce soon that more will be added, Thompson said.

For Abraham, cameras are "not a guarantor that people won't commit crime. But it will give bad guys the notion, 'I'm going to be caught on surveillance tape. Maybe I won't do it. Maybe I won't do it today. Maybe I won't do it ever.' It's the same as a burglar alarm or any other thing you put up to prevent people from getting into your house."

How effective are the cameras? Allan Jiao, a professor and chairman of the law and justice studies department at Rowan University, said Britain may lead the world in the use of video surveillance.

By some estimates, as many as 4.2 million closed-circuit TV cameras observe the British, and the average citizen is caught by as many as 300 cameras a day.

But studies by the British Home Office show the cameras have mixed results, Jiao said. Some cameras only displace crime as criminals move outside the view of the lens. Other times, lawbreakers take advantage of the fact that not every camera can be monitored every second.

Still, the British keep adding cameras, he said.

"It makes the public feel better," Jiao said. "It simply makes them feel secure, and it's probably politically popular, as politicians can say: 'We're doing something about crime.' "

The ACLU's Frankel said relying on cameras to do an officer's work chips away at the relationship between police and the public they serves.

"We believe that community policing was a good move because it put police back in the communities and made them more connected to what was going on. To an extent, this is stepping back from that," he said.

Peter Crabb, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University's Abington campus, has researched how such technology affects both the watchers and those being watched. He has found that users "get used to invading people's privacy.

"It makes respect for individual rights sort of fly out the window."