City cameras draw ethical insecurity

Joel Rose Jul 30, 2009

City cameras draw ethical insecurity

Joel Rose Jul 30, 2009


Bill Radke: If you’re a criminal — and I’m not saying you are — looking for a place to ply your trade, you might want to avoid Lancaster, Penn. This town west of Philadelphia will soon have the most security cameras per capita of any city in the state, and maybe the nation. Reporter Joel Rose says people in Lancaster aren’t as concerned about the cameras as they are about who is watching.

Joel Rose: By the end of the month, 165 cameras will provide live, round-the-clock video of just about every street in Lancaster. And it all feeds back here — to the nerve center, where someone can monitor and manipulate dozens of cameras.

Joe Morales: What we’re seeing now is a typical day in the life of Lancaster.

Joe Morales directs the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition. There wasn’t much to see they day I stopped by — just a few of Lancaster’s 56,000 residents walking the dog or hanging out in the park. But Morales says these cameras have helped the police catch drug dealers, thieves, even a murderer.

Morales: We are an extension of any good neighbor in your community who might see somebody breaking into a car and call the police. We are a digital neighborhood watch program.

What makes Lancaster’s surveillance program different from most is that Morales and his fellow crime-watchers do not work for the city. Lancaster’s crime rate is about twice the national average. So five years ago, local businesses started raising the roughly $2.5 million it took to build and operate the network.

If the city had to foot the bill, Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray says it wouldn’t exist.

Rick Gray: If it came down to us doing it, it would not be done at all. We could not not afford it and afford out current police department.

Lancaster isn’t the first city to outsource its security camera network to an independent organization. But for some, the arrangement raises concerns about privacy. Cameras record footage that could be very valuable to, for instance, an unscrupulous divorce lawyer.

That’s one reason Lancaster resident Bill Bortz says he’d feel better if the police ran the cameras.

Bill Bortz: Police have a code of ethics. The overall idea of the group maybe have high ethics, but people can be people.

Rose: And that makes you a little nervous?

Bortz: It does.

But the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition’s director Joe Morales says his organization also has high ethical standards because it has to.

Morales: If we mess this up — if we are not above suspicion, if we are not ethically sound — we won’t be around very long.

Morales says property crime in the city has dropped about 10 percent since the cameras came online. But the city’s violent crime rate hasn’t changed.

In Lancaster, Penn., I’m Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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