In Canadian Town, Municipal Surveillance Nixed

A trial period of using surveillance cameras to monitor the city of Stratford's downtown will end this month and won't likely resume unless police report a need based on incidents over the next 12 months.

City council's decision last night to discontinue the camera monitoring followed a presentation that indicated the quality and frequency of monitoring would have to be upgraded to be of significant use.

As well, Chief Gerald McEwin of the Stratford Police Service questioned the need for camera surveillance and said he found it "very difficult" to make a recommendation based on the six-month pilot project.

"I don't agree there's a specific need for downtown cameras," he told council, although he conceded a couple of liquor charges and one criminal charge were laid as a result of the camera monitoring during the period that began last August.

Chief McEwin acknow-ledged cameras can be a deterrent to lawless behaviour but he questioned the value of the monitoring, which was limited by budget considerations to 20 hours a week, and the usefulness of a system that does not record what it views or provide images that could be used as evidence.

The current surveillance system had been limited to a $15,000 budget by the former city council.

The present system is not useful for court evidence, council was told.

And while Chief McEwin agreed incidents in the downtown had been fewer since the existing six cameras around City Hall and Market Square had been installed, he said there's no doubt in his mind the closing of three bars on Market Square was a large contributing factor.

The chief told council city crime statistics, particu-larly violent crime statistics, are well below the provincial and national averages, and Stratford is a safe community.

The monitoring cameras were installed in response to a number of incidents of early morning vandalism and altercations -- including one that left a man bleeding profusely -- that occurred last summer.

Annual cost $40K, plus $80K for gear

A more sophisticated camera monitoring system capable of identifying licence plates and facial features would cost about $80,400 plus taxes in the first year alone with annual operating costs of more than $40,000.

At Mayor Dan Mathieson's suggestion, Coun. George Brown's move to file the video security report and take no action was altered.

Council agreed to table the report for a year during which interim police reports on downtown disturbances will be compiled.

The City Centre Committee is also to be consulted regarding its willingness to contribute to funding.

Only Coun. Dave Hunt spoke out in favour of continued camera monitoring. Citing "a history of mischief downtown," he said the cameras have been "very worthwhile" and there had been a noticeable change.

Councillors Frank Mark and Tom Clifford indicated they preferred the report be filed, but other members of council favoured the deferral.

Coun. Brown suggested bar owners be approached with regard to hiring police, but Chief McEwin said merchants indicated a few years ago they weren't interested in contributing to the cost of policing that currently happens May to November when off-duty officers patrol the downtown.

Mayor Mathieson led the charge for camera monitoring last summer when several incidents suggested things were getting out of hand. After last night's vote, however, he said he had listened intently to Chief McEwin and had no problem with council's decision.

"If it isn't serving any purpose that police feel supports their actions, there's no sense wastefully spending money (on cameras)," he said, adding that the situation can be looked at again in a year.