Charlotte-Mecklenburg police want to monitor private cameras

Charlotte ObserverDecember 11, 2012 

In a bid to expand its surveillance network, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police want to connect to private businesses’ cameras, which would allow officers to monitor malls, gas stations and banks across the county.

Although Police Chief Rodney Monroe did not say how many cameras the department hopes will be linked to its network, the policy change would be an unprecedented expansion since the department started using cameras 12 years ago.

The department is already connected to private cameras at Time Warner Cable Arena, Bank of America Stadium and bank buildings, police leaders said Monday. Police say expanding the network would help them catch more criminals and prevent crimes.

But the cameras would also collect more images of people who haven’t done anything wrong and store the video on police servers for weeks.

The department’s plans about the potential public-private partnerships were announced Monday as Monroe updated city council members on how his department intends to use the new technology. Much of the technology was paid for by money CMPD received from the federal government to boost security during the Democratic National Convention.

Police say the technology – the cameras, automatic license plate readers and a gunshot detection network known as ShotSpotter – offers them 21st century tools that will increase their ability to fight crime.

Police leaders tried to allay fears that the new technology would result in government intrusion.

“The goal of the technology is to create a safer environment and for all citizens to feel that CMPD is out there to support them, not to take on a big brother role,” Monroe told city council members.

He also said the increased surveillance “multiplies our own resources by having additional eyes and ears to be able to detect, observe and ultimately apprehend those engaged in criminal behaviors.”

Police have access to about 650 cameras, Monroe said. In contrast, Chicago, which is nearly four times as large as Charlotte, had an estimated 10,000 cameras by 2011. Baltimore, with 130,000 fewer people, had more than 500 cameras, concentrated in the city’s downtown area. Privacy advocates say the city should have a more input on how much surveillance the police department uses.

“The people of Charlotte should be able to decide democratically what kind of surveillance power they want to be subjected to,” said Mike Meno, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “This expansion shouldn’t be just because surveillance was dialed up during the DNC and we’re just going to leave it in place after that.”

City council members also raised questions about potential privacy intrusion.

“I very much understand the notion that people have the expectation of privacy in homes, but I wonder to what extent would cameras be used in neighborhoods,” said Democrat Michael Barnes, who represents District Four in northern and east Charlotte.

Police and council members addressed other technology-related issues:

• Police have identified six areas they believe may benefit from ShotSpotter, the gunshot detection system, based on reports of gunfire and violent crimes. Since August, the system has been focused on two square miles in the center city, which has a relatively low violent crime rate. Police haven’t said which neighborhoods are likely to get the sensitive ShotSpotter microphones, or when they would make a final decision. Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, a Democrat, asked police whether officers would be sent on “wild goose chases” by the technology, which has faced criticism about false alarms in the past.

• Police plan to continue their use of cameras that read license plates and put them into a searchable database. The department has nearly 100 such cameras, and investigators mine the data they collect to find stolen cars, track getaway vehicles and locate missing people.

• City Council member Beth Pickering, an at-large Democrat, asked whether the department would offer a public process for determining where police place cameras and other technology. Monroe did not directly answer the question.

But the police chief told the Observer the department would offer no such process. The cameras, microphones and other sensors will be placed in public thoroughfares in full view of the public, he said.

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