In Ramsey County, Minn., you don’t have to be a cop to fight crime. In fact, you don’t even have to leave your desk. All you have to do is join the county’s virtual neighborhood watch network and you’ll be able to lookout for suspicious activity from your computer.

Over the past year, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office has created a network of 30 surveillance cameras targeted at criminal hot spots, or areas with frequent vehicle break-ins, thefts and assaults. The wireless technology allows law enforcement officers to access live video feeds from their squad cars and substations.

But they can’t see everything.

With Neighborhood eWatch, the public can join in the fight against crime by logging onto the site and entering “public” for the username and password. On the website [www.ramseycountysheriffwebcop.com], users gain access to 14 of the county’s surveillance cameras set up in various public areas. If users spot any suspicious activity, authorities want them to call the East Metro Real-Time Information Center (EMRIC), where analysts can pan, tilt and zoom in on potential incidents and dispatch deputies as needed.

“At this site you’ll be able to access important public safety information regarding crime in Ramsey County,” Sheriff Bob Fletcher said in an introduction video on the site. “We want you to help us look for suspicious activity.”

Predictably privacy advocates have concerns about the local surveillance program. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota objects to the fact that users must enter the username and password to gain access.

“I'm not particularly happy about it,” said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU in Minnesota. “The only reason to have a username and password is to verify who’s watching and control access.”

According to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, users don’t have to register their own personal information to view the website, so authorities won’t know exactly who’s watching.

But on a broad scale, the debate rages on about whether these virtual technologies infringe on privacy rights. This year, governments have used Google Earth to track code violations and hunt for undeclared swimming pools and GIS tools to fight crime and fix roads.

Despite objections, backers claim the digital tools help agencies solve problems faster. In Ramsey County, for instance, the Neighborhood eWatch program helped authorities nab a car thief who had been lurking in parking lots for weeks.

Criminals tend to target people and property in areas where they think no one sees them, so the placement of each camera is strategic for crime prevention.

“These areas experience high levels of theft of motor vehicles which often result in check forgery, credit card fraud, identity theft and on occasion, home burglaries,” according to the Sheriff’s Office.

This new initiative, Fletcher added, puts more eyes on alert, which helps law enforcement officials respond to or prevent offenses. On the website, users can also find information about robberies, burglaries and gang-related activity, a “most wanted” section and visitors can sign up to receive e-mail crime reports. The site also has a live video from one of the sheriff’s cars — which Fletcher touts as the first in the nation -- which gives viewers the chance to periodically “ride along” and see what’s happening on the streets of Ramsey County.

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer