Arroyo Grande police have used federal grant money to buy surveillance cameras to monitor specific areas of the downtown Village in an effort to prevent vandalism, graffiti and other crimes.
Ten video surveillance systems were recently installed in various locations on public and private property: along East Branch Street, in Olohan Alley, near Heritage Square Park and close to South County Historical Society properties, including the Heritage House Museum, Santa Manuela Schoolhouse and Barn Museum.
The system will go live online in February. It will allow dispatchers to watch real-time activity on three monitors at the Arroyo Grande police station, and the recordings can be downloaded later if needed and stored for at least a year. Each “pod” system contains four cameras, a digital video recorder and a wireless broadband router.
City officials claim the use of video surveillance can deter crime, provide additional evidence in police investigations and increase public safety.
Police Chief Steve Annibali said there have been reports of vandalism at the South County Historical Society properties and the cameras “will help us guard our historic Village Buildings and public assets.”
“It allows us to take a more proactive approach,” Arroyo Grande police Cmdr. Beau Pryor said. “If we see a crime in progress then we can have our officers respond immediately. We can go back in time and retrieve data if it is reported at a later time.”
The cameras cost $64,817. Of that, $18,543 came from a U.S. Justice Department grant; the rest will be covered by the Arroyo Grande Police Department.
But critics question whether video surveillance effectively prevents and deters crime, and they argue that it conflicts with the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Arroyo Grande is not the only police department in San Luis Obispo County to beef up its enforcement efforts with similar moves.
Atascadero has had a similar video surveillance system in place for about a year. The city purchased one system, with four cameras, that has been moved to three locations so far, police Sgt. Gregg Meyer said.
It’s currently attached to a pole near the Main Street Association office on El Camino Real, monitoring an area of Sunken Gardens. Police are not continuously monitoring it, he said, but some have access to view the feed online.
The system hasn’t been in place long enough to track its effectiveness, Meyer said, though he said that some graffiti problems at one park stopped after the camera was moved there.
Numerous studies have tried to pin down the effectiveness of video surveillance.
A California Research Bureau report in 1997 found data to suggest that closed circuit television surveillance was successful at reducing and preventing crimes and helpful in prosecuting those caught committing a crime.
There have been more recent studies on surveillance systems in the United Kingdom, where there were, as of 2006, more than 4.2 million surveillance cameras, or one for every 14 people.
A 2005 study found the only crime decrease attributable to the surveillance cameras was reducing vehicle crime in parking lots, according to a BBC News article.
In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union surveyed 131 jurisdictions in California and found that 37 cities had some type of video surveillance program. Of those, 11 had policies in place regulating the use of cameras. None had done a comprehensive evaluation of their effectiveness.
Public surveillance raises two types of privacy issues: whether it should be done at all; and if it is used, how it is managed, said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The public needs to be involved in answering both those questions, he said.
“We’re guinea pigs for this technology,” he said, adding there ought to be checks to ensure the technology is effective.Arroyo Grande police have a policy in place to govern the use of the new cameras, and signs will be installed to alert the public of them.
The main point, Annibali said, is to protect the city’s irreplaceable historical buildings and artifacts.
“The area by the creek is pretty isolated,” he said. “It’s very difficult to patrol throughout the night and day and these things, we feel, will give us an upper hand.”