City Camera Law Works

City of El Cerrito in Northern California

About 20 months ago the Northern California city of El Cerrito enacted an ordinance requiring certain businesses to install and maintain a video surveillance system. The idea was to have access to the video to help deter, stop and prosecute crimes. Go here for more information on the ordinance.

The idea started years ago, but came to a head when the city’s homicide rate (normally about one a year) shot up to three murders in one year.

So far, El Cerrito police commander Michael Regan says that compliance has been good. He said that businesses had a year to comply and with rare exception almost all have systems up and working.

“Compliance has been pretty good,” he said. “We only had about two percent that were problematic.”

He said the city is still working with those businesses to bring them into compliance. Surprisingly enough, Regan says that for the most part smaller businesses have been more compliant and easier to work with.

“With the larger retailers and businesses we usually had to deal with corporate philosophy and a corporate approval process.” said Regan. “When we are talking with smaller businesses the guy behind the counter is the decision maker.”

He said some smaller businesses have even gone beyond the requirements and added extra cameras. The ordinance is very specific about the number, position and resolution of cameras. It also specifies recording and video storage capabilities.

Regan says the system has been a definite plus for the city and the police department.

Recently a man in the downtown area carried out a series of street robberies – robbing citizens as they walked on the sidewalk. El Cerrito police did not know exactly who they were looking for until one of the officers remembered a victim saying that earlier a suspect had walked into a nearby liquor store. Officers checked the video from the store’s ordinance-compliant surveillance system and were able to identify the man. Police later found him on the roof of a building waiting for them to leave the area.

“We would never have been able to identify him without the surveillance images,” said Regan.

Getting the ordinance written and passed took time, but Regan said there are some key things the city team did to get it done right.

Research – Regan said, “We did our homework.” He said,”We talked with hundreds of people about video surveillance systems. We talked with vendors, integrators, end-users and consultants.” He also said that the team studied systems they liked and knew worked.

Loan Program – To make it easier for businesses to comply with the ordinance, the city used redevelopment funds to offer smaller businesses a 50 percent forgivable loan on up to $5,000 toward a system.

Brought in decision makers – We involved all of the decision makers in the process including the city manager’s and city attorney’s offices, the city council, business groups and the public. According to Regan, the team held meetings throughout the city to explain the purpose of the ordinance and get support up front.

-- PSW staff