Police Hope High-Visibility Cameras Will Deter Crime in Eugene, Ore.

The city hopes to purchase or lease several trailer-mounted cameras for deployment throughout the downtown area.

by Christian Hill, The Register-Guard / August 27, 2018

(TNS) — The Eugene, Ore., Police Department is seeking to put extra pairs of eyes on downtown — digital ones, that is.

The department intends to lease or purchase several trailer-mounted surveillance cameras under a trial project to provide another law enforcement tool to improve safety in the area.

Police Chief Chris Skinner said the main goal of the cameras, which will be well-marked, is to deter crime through their visible presence in public areas, although footage of an alleged crime could be used as evidence in a prosecution. Officers also would be able to access the camera's feed on their phone or tablet to check on activity in a location. There would be no live monitoring initially, he said.

"With the new normal we have now with body-worn cameras, when we're capturing ... police interactions with the public, this is a nice additional resource that we have when we can't be at all places at all times," he said. "An agency of this size, quite frankly, should have this capability."

Three companies have provided price quotes for the cameras to the police department, which declined to release them. The cost for each camera ranges between $15,000 and $85,000, depending on its capability, Skinner said. He said he'd like to purchase three or four cameras, but the exact number hasn't been determined.

The city budget committee set aside $500,000 in one-time funding so the department can acquire the cameras and pay for several other criminal justice initiatives.

Representatives of the camera companies will visit Eugene in early September, a police spokeswoman said. The cameras, which are fixed atop a mast that can reach up to 35 feet, are tentatively scheduled to be up and running in October, she said.

The cameras would be able to pan, zoom and capture audio. Skinner told the police commission last month the aim is not to eavesdrop on residents' conversations, which he acknowledged would be governmental overreach, but to identify sounds of gunshots or breaking glass that can assist an investigation.

The first locations for the cameras are downtown's typical trouble spots, including around the downtown bus station and Eugene Public Library, the corner of West Broadway and Olive Street, and Kesey Square, the police chief said.

Last month, the city police commission reviewed and approved a policy for the cameras' use. The video would be stored no more than 30 days, unless it's needed for an investigation.

Skinner has already made several presentations to city councilors about the project. The majority of city councilors are generally supportive of it, although some have raised privacy concerns.

"We hear a lot of concerns about what's happening" downtown, Mayor Lucy Vinis said. " ... We do want to have the opportunity to take a look at the protocols and make sure we're not really compromising people's privacy, but at the same time we're trying to increase public safety."

In recent years, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of public dollars on initiatives to make downtown feel safer and more welcoming. Many residents and business representatives have complained about harassment and criminal and nuisance behavior they've been forced to endure from individuals who loiter downtown. The initiatives include an increased police presence and more events at public spaces.

Skinner said the cameras have other uses besides downtown. The department could move the cameras to any location in the city identified as a crime "hot spot" using data analysis and also deploy them for large events, including the World Track and Field Championships in 2021.

"This is not designed to be covert. This is designed to be very overt. ... People are going to know that it's there," Skinner said. "Folks that are down there with families or maybe retailers are going to feel real comfortable knowing that there's a separate set of eyes."

Priya Makyadath, vice president of membership for Downtown Eugene Merchants, said a police department official briefly noted the cameras during a discussion about the ongoing efforts to address safety in the area earlier this summer.

Makyadath, who manages Shoe-A-Holic on Willamette Street, responded favorably to the project, noting most retailers already have cameras installed in their stores and that "if you're not doing anything wrong, there should be nothing to worry about."

"More eyes is better for safety," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon has numerous concerns about video surveillance in public places, noting cameras carry the potential for abuse, including voyeurism, and can have a chilling effect on public gatherings and may not be effective in deterring crime.

Kimberly McCullough, the organization's policy director, said the ACLU encourages cities to have robust discussions with residents about the reasons for installing cameras and what policies and procedures should be adopted to dictate their use, including how long video footage is retained and who in the department has access to it.

McCullough said while the ACLU doesn't object to surveillance cameras in every case, "we think they should be tailored to a specific purpose."

Earlier this year, the University of Oregon installed two surveillance cameras at locations near campus during a spate of armed robberies that involved student victims in some cases. The state Department of Justice provided the cameras, which were installed from late March through early June, through a loan program. Dispatchers monitored the camera's video feed.

Kelly McIver, spokesman for the university's police department, said the cameras were installed at the same time there was an increased police presence and students were advised to take extra precautions, so it's difficult to gauge their effectiveness as a deterrent.

"Honestly, it's always hard to say when something doesn't happen why something didn't happen," he said.

Elk Grove, Calif., a city of roughly Eugene's size that is part of the greater Sacramento area, purchased two cameras a couple of years ago and is in the process of buying four more systems.

Police spokesman Jason Jimenez said the cameras are deployed as needed to address trouble spots around Elk Grove.

He said the cameras have proven effective and that the response from the community has been generally positive. For example, he said the department deployed a camera at a shopping center where high school kids often congregated after school. There were frequent reports of large fights and drug sales.

"Quite frankly, that pretty much resolved that issue," he said.

While officers also had increased patrols of the area, Jimenez attributed the presence of the camera as a major factor in clearing up the problem.

"It's another tool, if you will, that we can use to address problems like that," he said.

©2018 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.