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Keeping a Video Eye on a Massachusetts City


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Another new beginning for the Department of Homeland Security. Secretary Michael Chertoff is detailing today his plans to overhaul the agency. He wants to create two new positions in the department, a terrorism intelligence director and a chief medical officer. He will also put a higher priority on bioterrorism.

Security is on everyone's minds after the London bombings last week. In the last several days, British police used footage from surveillance cameras to identify some of the suspects. Here in the US, cameras are going up around the city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, near Boston. When the cameras are turned on later this summer, police will be able to monitor virtually every public space in the city of 40,000 people. Other cities around the country use crime cameras, but Chelsea is the first in this country to be under almost complete surveillance. From member station WBUR Boston, Monica Brady-Myerov reports.


Already in Chelsea's downtown square, police officers stand watching for criminal activity. Now the eyes of the police will be on every street corner in Chelsea in the form of 34 crime prevention cameras. City manager Jay Ash says cameras are cheaper than police officers.

Mr. JAY ASH (City Manager, Chelsea, Massachusetts): These cameras will be there 24/7, 365. They'll never be sick. They'll never go on vacation. They always will be focused.

BRADY-MYEROV: The cameras will monitored from police headquarters when an officer is available. Some of the cameras can pan 360 degrees and zoom in close enough to see what someone is reading. Ash says the goal is not to snoop.

Mr. ASH: Public safety is the overriding concern here, and we have an opportunity to use emerging technology to better protect the public.

BRADY-MYEROV: Ash says the cameras won't infringe on civil liberties because only police officers on duty will use them and supervisors will review stored footage. But the cameras don't work to deter crime, says Sarah Wunsch at the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts.

Ms. SARAH WUNSCH (American Civil Liberties Union): These cameras, surveillance cameras, full-time, you know, police surveillance cameras, are being sold to the public as a measure to make us safe. And the evidence that's in so far is that they're not effective at doing that. And...

BRADY-MYEROV: Wunsch cites a recent British study showing that while some residents are filmed an average of 300 times a day, cameras alone don't reduce crime, nor did the cameras deter terrorists from attacking London's transit system. Chelsea's police chief, Frank Garvin, says his city based its decision to buy cameras on anecdotal evidence from New Orleans and Chicago.

Chief FRANK GARVIN (Chelsea, Massachusetts, Police Department): In Chicago, when they began to just hard-wire the cameras without them even operating, crime went down because there is that deterrent effect.

BRADY-MYEROV: Many cities have taken surveillance cameras down because they're not effective, including Atlantic City and Miami Beach. Wunsch from the ACLU says any effect cameras have on crime doesn't outweigh privacy concerns.

Ms. WUNSCH: We usually consider ourselves better off than people who live in those totalitarian societies where the government is always spying on the population. Well, these cameras will give our government the ability to spy on us wherever we go.

BRADY-MYEROV: At a beauty salon in downtown, Carmen Sah(ph) says privacy isn't as important to her as safety.

Ms. CARMEN SAH: (Through Translator) I think the cameras are great. It's more security for people and very good because there's never been that kind of security in all Chelsea.

BRADY-MYEROV: Across the street, Deborah Wayne(ph), a local business owner, says the cameras will only displace crime.

Ms. DEBORAH WAYNE (Business Owner): I think that the crime that comes down here will just go elsewhere in the city, but I don't think it'll deter it, no.

BRADY-MYEROV: And if Chelsea is blanketed with cameras, where will it go?

Ms. WAYNE: Hopefully to Boston. (Laughs)

BRADY-MYEROV: The city manager says that might happen, but he predicts cameras will be helpful in curbing drug dealing, graffiti and car break-ins, at least in the city of Chelsea. For NPR News, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Monica Brady-Myerov