Arroyo Grande has electronic eyes on you

Known for its concerts on the green, its flock of chickens strolling through the downtown parking lot, its trove of historic buildings, the Village of Arroyo Grande now has another, less bucolic, feature: surveillance cameras.

Ten “pods” of cameras have been installed at several locations in the Village to deter vandalism, arson and other crimes.

Arroyo Grande isn’t alone — Atascadero, for example, has one video camera system that’s been deployed at various locations — but Arroyo Grande is the first community in the county to make such extensive use of surveillance cameras in public places.

We understand the rationale. There have been incidents of vandalism at historic buildings, and this is a relatively low-cost way to beef up security of those irreplaceable resources.

Yet we find it sadly ironic that a community that prides itself on its rural character and charm — and justifiably so — should install such intrusive, hightech, Orwellian devices.

Granted, we’ve all grown accustomed to security cameras on private property: at ATMs, convenience stores, big-box parking lots. Indeed, some businesses have come under fire for not installing cameras as another layer of protection for customers.

But where will it end? Will even the smallest communities soon feel compelled to have a surveillance camera on every street corner?

We hope it doesn’t come to that.

For one thing, the verdict is still out on whether video cameras are effective at reducing crime. As Tribune writer Cynthia Lambert reported Tuesday, one study in the United Kingdom — which has an extensive network of surveillance cameras — found they were most effective at reducing vehicle crimes in parking lots. If that’s the case, then why not limit their use to those locations?

Until there is clear and convincing evidence that video cameras are effective in other situations, we would caution local agencies not to get carried away with cameras.

Also, there should be strict guidelines for use, including policies that protect the public from inappropriate release of video images.

And of course, the public should be made fully aware that cameras are in use.

To its credit, the Arroyo Grande Police Department did spend considerable time developing such policies, but the review should not end there. Now that the cameras have been installed, there should be periodic evaluation of whether the cameras are effective. We urge keeping “before and after” statistics to judge whether the cameras are indeed deterring crime.

Bottom line: Video cameras may prove to be an important tool for law enforcement in certain situations. But if they aren’t effective, we see no good reason to intrude on the privacy of law-abiding citizens by placing them under the constant scrutiny of cameras.