Small Towns, Big Surveillance
So far, the growth of small-town surveillance camera systems has not received much national notice, but according to a recent Washington Post article, the cameras already seem to be changing the way police operate in small towns.
Large police departments have only started to embrace public surveillance in the past six years or so, long after privately owned cameras became commonplace at banks, ATMs and retail stores.
In Bellows Falls, Vt., for example, federal grant funding has enabled city officials to purchase 16 surveillance cameras. They have been placed at intersections, at a sewage plant and in the town square. The 16 cameras are three fewer than those used in the District of Columbia — 181 times Bellows Falls’ population of 3,050.
“People don’t notice things,” Bellows Falls police chief Keith Clark tells the Post. “Now, technology is there to do that.”
Many small towns are using Homeland security funding to protect critical infrastructure. “It was difficult to be able to find something to use (the funds) for,” Preston, Md., police chief Mel Evans tells the newspaper. “Because the grants needed to be used on target hardening, the cameras fit in real nice.”
Despite the popularity of these systems, some critics question whether they are any good at stopping crimes in progress. Now, some smaller police departments are using surveillance cameras: An informal search turned up 17 with 100 or fewer officers that either had a surveillance system or planned to install one.
In several cases, funding to buy cameras appears to have come from the federal government, either for community policing or Homeland security.
Spokesmen for the departments of Justice and Homeland Security said they were unable to compile information about how many small-town camera programs the agencies had funded, or how much had been spent.
Many of the police departments had success stories — license plates spotted, witnesses located or suspects caught through the new camera technology. In Newnan, Ga., for instance, Chief D.L. Meadows recalled a case in which one of his 20 cameras spotted a drug suspect sitting on his front porch, then provided the chief with an electronic view of the arrest.
But others say too few officers are available to have anyone watching the cameras full time.
“It costs you virtually $100,000 to put an officer on the street, versus $5,000 for a camera,” says Capt. William Zbacnik of the Pittsburg, Calif., Police Department. “I’d put as many cameras out there as you can.”