Monday, April 27, 2009

Surveillance cameras cut crime downtown, but monitoring them is getting too expensive

Spend time in downtown Dallas, and there's an increasingly good chance your movements will be caught on city surveillance cameras. Less certain is whether a police officer will be watching at the other end of that video feed.

A security camera at Main and Griffin streets is one of 82 downtown. The $8,000 to $10,000 to buy a camera is only the start of the expense to monitor public areas. The cameras have multiplied since the program began two years ago, and Dallas police say they have reduced crime.

Their number downtown stands at 82, and there are 14 more in Jubilee Park.

But as more cameras are installed and more neighborhood groups look at acquiring them, police say the city must figure out which ones get monitored and who is going to pay for it all.

"Cameras have helped reduce crime in such a dramatic manner that we are victims of our own success," Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia said Monday as she introduced the issue on the City Council's public safety committee agenda.

In the central business district, police say they've made 1,700 arrests during the last couple of years thanks to the cameras. Meanwhile, crime there so far this year is down 11 percent from 2008.

In September, the cameras helped capture a murder suspect after several people broke into a coin-operated newspaper stand. Police watching a video feed spotted the thieves trying to hide near the downtown library. Officers arrested two people, one of whom turned out to be wanted in a Fort Worth slaying.

The cameras were bought with money from neighborhood, business and philanthropic groups. They cost $8,000 to $10,000 each and thousands more dollars to link their feeds to the police dispatch center.

Police, meanwhile, have provided the manpower to monitor them. Retired and light-duty officers watch feeds 24 hours a day, zooming in on people of interest.

Industry standards recommend one pair of eyes for each 25 cameras. But in Dallas, usually only two employees juggle the nearly 100 feeds at any given time.

"There's different staffing on each watch, but generally right now, we do not have the ideal staffing down there for the cameras," Deputy Chief Tom Lawrence said.

This, as dozens more cameras have been proposed and are expected in places like Fair Park, Uptown, White Rock Lake, and along Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff. Money raised by neighborhood groups is helping pay for them.

"I believe they're seeing the effectiveness of the cameras, and they want to see if they can partner with the police department," Lawrence said.

At Monday's meeting, Dallas police recommended that the city pay to monitor the cameras only in designated violent-crime hot spots. In other areas, neighborhood and business groups would have to pay for the manpower themselves.

The committee members agreed and voted to take the recommendation to the full council.

Police say it costs about $250,000 a year in manpower to monitor one station of 25 camera feeds around the clock.

"If you have a location that has an overriding community concern, the department may be willing to monitor those," Lawrence said after the meeting. "We're not trying to get a hard and fast rule, we're just trying to get some guidance here."

One group that would be affected, the White Rock Lake Conservancy, has been raising money to fund installation of cameras in the lake's parking lots, hoping to target the problem of car burglary.

"It's much more manageable today at White Rock, but we think we can even bring those numbers down a great deal more with security cameras," said Gary Griffith, chairman of the conservancy.

The group has raised $30,000 so far and hopes to install cameras before the end of the year.

But Griffith, contacted Monday evening, said he was not aware of the proposal that groups like his – those not in violent-crime hot spots – would also have to pay to have the cameras monitored.

"We think we need to raise about $90,000 for the hardware – that does not include any monitoring charges," Griffith said. "So if the city approaches us about that, then we'd have to sort of hear what that is, and how to quantify that, because it's all news to us."
By STEVE THOMPSON / The Dallas Morning News