Candid Cop | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

May 20, 2009 News » Cover Story

Candid Cop 

SLCPD cameras are watching, but police say they usually aren’t looking

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From an office across the street, Salt Lake City Police officers watch comings and goings in Pioneer Park as if they are standing next to park visitors. The park police video surveillance camera system that was turned on in February allows police to watch through the lens of four cameras placed at the top of high poles. System operators can turn the camera eyes and even zoom-in on suspicious behavior. Signs warn park-goers they are being watched 24 hours per day. Images are uploaded to a Website so they can be accessed remotely by police with access codes to the system.

The Salt Lake City Police Department hasn’t yet done a formal analysis of the program, but anecdotally the program has been a “tremendous success,” says Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank. Drug dealing that once plagued the park is “almost nonexistent.” And the cameras haven’t chased away Pioneer Park’s homeless population as some had feared.

Paid for with a federal grant, the Pioneer Park cameras are part of an explosion of police video surveillance across the country that technology market researchers predict will help quadruple revenue from video surveillance software during the next five years.

In Salt Lake City, the idea already has reached beyond the boundaries of Pioneer Park.

Under the 1-year-old Video Camera Surveillance Partnership Program, Salt Lake City awarded $1,500 grants to Salt Lake City businesses that agreed to purchase and install video surveillance. The awards paid for half the price tag of four-camera digital surveillance systems. The only catch was that the police department could look in whenever it wanted.

Targeted for the surveillance program were banks, drugstores and nightclubs and other business that “cater to large gatherings of the public.” Around 40 businesses applied for the cameras and 13 received the grant. City Weekly was not able to immediately determine which businesses have installed police cameras, but the city Downtown Business Alliance and several Sugar House stores were listed in the city’s application for federal money that paid for the project. The Salt Lake City Council was informed the camera program would target “areas that attract youth and young adults as a ‘hangout.’”

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank briefed the City Council on the business camera program in May 2008, at the same time broaching the idea of deploying cameras in public spaces as a crime deterrent.

Participating business signed documents giving the Salt Lake City Police Department “complete unlimited and unrestricted access to and control over the Video Surveillance Program Cameras.” That includes access to a “live feed” and “remote access” during all business hours. But Chief Burbank says his police aren’t watching. He says the only time the police would look at the images recorded on the business cameras is if a crime had occurred in the business.

The chief says the only surveillance cameras currently being monitored live by police are those in Pioneer Park. The use of those cameras is regulated by a police department policy, new for 2009, that governs the use of police surveillance cameras in public spaces.

The policy says police cameras will only be used in places where the public doesn’t have an expectation of privacy, like parks, sidewalks and streets, and only in response to verified reports of crime or to monitor “critical infrastructure,” a Homeland Security term that includes everything from communications networks to national monuments.

Normally, cameras will record for a week, then record over images. Any use of the system requires a report to be prepared by the SLCPD employee using the cameras.

Burbank says the police department went to great pains in creating the policy, recognizing potential conflicts since Pioneer Park is often used for protests. The policy says the cameras’ follow-and-zoom functions won’t be used during political rallies. All profiling—focusing the camera lens on people for reasons like race or gender—is “strictly prohibited,” as is monitoring political or free-speech events.

The police department ran the camera policy by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which appreciated the effort, though it didn’t like the policy. The local chapter of the ACLU objects to the use of cameras, arguing there is little evidence cameras reduce crime but good reason to believe they have a chilling effect on free speech. The SLCPD camera policy doesn’t spell out who beside the SLCPD will have access to surveillance images, the ACLU pointed out.

Burbank says he hasn’t made up his mind about whether the use of police camera surveillance should be expanded beyond Pioneer Park. He’s waiting to see how the Pioneer Park experiment works first. But there are advocates for more police video surveillance in Salt Lake City.

Glendale resident Richard Kaufusi recently went to Salt City Hall asking for cameras in his neighborhood after a drive-by shooting near his home. “The police are fast, but get here late, after something has already happened,” he says. “A camera can pick up license plate.” Kafusi’s idea is cameras on the main streets leading out of the neighborhood that are triggered by a 911 call.

With today’s technology, his idea is possible.

Chicago, often cited by Burbank as an example of successful use of police cameras, has made perhaps the broadest use of combining cops on the beat with high technology.

At the Chicago Police Department’s Crime Prevention Information Center, police officers watch montages of images from hundreds of surveillance cameras in the city. Private security cameras from schools, businesses and homes recently began linking into the city system. With the number of cameras threatening to overwhelm the number of officers to watch them, Chicago is moving to camera-watching computers programmed to spot suspicious activities.

Another security-camera-heavy city, Dallas pipes images from its 100-camera system into its Fusion Center run in cooperation with the federal Homeland Security Department.

Where Salt Lake City’s early experiments with police surveillance will lead only time will tell. But some indication might be taken from recent grant applications made by the city.

In February 2009, the SLCPD received a $360,000 state Homeland Security grant to purchase a wireless-surveillance system of panoramic video and still-image cameras for the purpose of monitoring “buffer zone sites” that the federal Homeland Security Department considers likely targets of an attack by terrorists.

Two years ago, the SLCPD submitted a federal grant asking for $500,000 of video surveillance equipment to watch areas of terrorist threat, frequent crime or “large gatherings.” The example given to the City Council of how the mobile cameras might be used was “the July 24th parade.” The grant does not appear to have been funded.

On May 2, 2009, Pioneer Park was the scheduled meeting place for a celebration of May Day, an American invented workers holiday appropriated by the Communist Soviet Union. Participants included gay rights activists, union officials and anti-war crusaders. It was exactly the sort of gathering of left-wingers, trade unionists and homosexuals that 45 years ago would have been infiltrated by the FBI and landed participants on a list of undesirables to be “rounded up” in the case of a national emergency.

Under the SLPD’s camera policy the “active monitoring” mode of the park’s police cameras would have been switched to “off” for the gathering. Turns out, it didn’t matter. Organizers rescheduled the rally because of rain and relocated to the State Capitol.
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