Park goers might expect to see the eyes of owls and squirrels while walking through public parks; what they may not expect to see are surveillance cameras looking at them as well.

In January, the Flushing, Mich., Police Department had five IP surveillance cameras installed in its city’s Riverview Park. The 24-hour surveillance cameras were installed to monitor areas that have been frequent crime targets. Police Chief Mark Hoornstra said one of the park’s biggest crimes is destruction of property — ranging from drawings on picnic tables to gang graffiti.

The cameras — purchased through a portion of a $100,000 justice assistance grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — are only activated by motion, and the footage is recorded at the city’s Department of Public Works.

But does occasional park vandalism call for 24-hour surveillance? Hoornstra said although there hasn’t been much negative feedback about the cameras, he was surprised to hear comments that liken the cameras to Big Brother.

“A park is a public place; it’s a place that’s open. And there’s really no expectation of privacy in a park, I wouldn’t expect,” Hoornstra said and later commented, “The cameras don’t monitor anything that a police officer wouldn’t be able to monitor if he was sitting in a patrol car.”

The Police Department has already used the cameras to positively identify minors who damaged one of the park’s picnic tables, which led to confessions from the perpetrators. The department is currently in the process of using a camera recording to identify a suspect caught spraying graffiti in the park.

While Flushing is finding its new cameras in Riverview Park to be an overall success, other cities haven’t been able to keep surveillance cameras in parks due to public opposition.

For example, backlash from the community led to cameras being removed from Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park. In 2008, then-Mayor Greg Nickels had three surveillance cameras installed throughout the park without notifying the public or City Council first. He had the cameras installed to reduce crime in the park, said Sally Bagshaw, a Seattle councilwoman and chair of the Parks and Seattle Center Committee.

At the time, protocol for the cameras outlined that recordings were only to be viewed if a crime took place in the park that had been reported to the police, she said. The Seattle Police East Precinct was responsible for reviewing any footage after a report was made.

But even with the strict guidelines for viewing the camera footage, the negative response from members of the community and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was so strong that after a series of public hearings, the council had the cameras removed last year, Bagshaw said.

“We met with the ACLU and neighborhood leaders who went down and looked at the police cameras, the protocol, how it was all working,” she said. “And after a fairly significant time, we decided, ‘Let’s just take these cameras out, they’re not helping.’”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.