In Stamford, Conn., City Wrestles with Municipal Surveillance

Jun. 24--STAMFORD -- The city is defending its plan to use security cameras in neighborhoods with high crime rates, while city legislators say the move could be an invasion of privacy and possibly discriminatory.

During a lively and heated debate Thursday night, members of the Public Safety & Health Committee of the Board of Representatives expressed concerns about residents' privacy should it decide to support a city ordinance to allow cameras to be used to fight crime.

The ordinance limits the use of city cameras to traffic monitoring.

At Thursday's meeting, Public Safety Director William Callion said options for cameras include areas with the highest crime rates, areas near schools and public housing areas, and for homeland security. The cost and number of cameras have yet to be determined, he said.

A city map presented at the meeting indicated a majority of the recent shootings, drug deals and other crimes occurred in West Side and South End neighborhoods.

"We want to try and make sure law enforcement and homeland security use as many tools as possible to ensure that Stamford is a safe city," Callion told the committee.

Several board members expressed concern that placing cameras in neighborhoods that are predominantly black and Latino might send the wrong message to residents.

City Rep. Terry Adams, D-3, suggested installation of the cameras not be limited to criminal "hot spots."

"I think you'll see crime in areas that officers don't normally see," he said. "I'm against it if it's not going to be deployed equally. We do not want to give the impression that the city is discriminatory."

City Rep. Scott Mirkin, R-13, said the issue of camera placement was a matter of safety, not race.

"I don't care what they are -- black, white, Italian, Jewish. These are people and they're being affected," he said.

Police Chief Brent Larrabee told the committee the cameras would be used as a crime deterrent and investigative tool, and not to peer into residents' homes or randomly target the general public.

A 1999 ordinance limits the use of city-owned closed circuit television cameras to traffic monitoring. Traffic engineers use 16 cameras at intersections throughout the city to monitor traffic flow.

Any changes to the ordinance would have to be approved by the committee as well as the full Board of Representatives. A public hearing will be scheduled as part of the approval process.

The security cameras would operate as a second pair of eyes for the police force, which is struggling to stay at full staff, Larrabee said. With 271 officers, the department is below the level needed to be fully staffed, he said.

"I'm sensitive to the fact people worry about us spying on them from day to day, but this is the 21st century, and camera surveillance is where we should be going," he said.

Larrabee said security cameras at businesses and residences near Virgil Street and Stillwater Avenue helped police identify and later arrest nine people involved in last month's gang shootout at the West Side intersection.

Other legislators raised concerns about who would monitor the surveillance, access to the film and how long it should be stored.

City Rep. Gloria DePina, D-5, said she didn't want residents in her district to feel like they were being watched or that recorded footage could be used against them.

"We don't want to feel threatened that it could be used for other things. I want to make sure people feel comfortable," she said.

DePina also said she didn't want police officers to have access to the footage because it could be erased or abused in other ways.

Larrabee said an officer would be fired if that happened.

He also said if the security cameras are approved, residents would be able to recommend where cameras are installed.

"I wouldn't put a camera in an area if the residents were against it, regardless of the consequences," Larrabee said.

City attorneys will use members' suggestions from Thursday's meeting to draft a new policy, which members will review at next month's meeting.

For example, Michael Toma, an attorney for the city, said yesterday a provision will be added to allow cameras to be used for surveillance of areas considered at risk for homeland security, such as a train station.

"It was a good, healthy discussion and we tried to cover everything," City Rep. Richard Lyons II, D-1, said yesterday. Lyons is the committee chairman.

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