The security cameras are always watching, recording. They are also multiplying.
The man waiting at the bus stop in downtown Dayton is under surveillance. And so is the family shopping in Oakwood. And the fleeing shoplifter in Englewood does not realize he is the star of a televised drama until long after he is placed in handcuffs and whisked away to jail.
The growing use of surveillance cameras to protect property, promote public safety and assist police in deterring and solving crimes means people in some areas are under constant watch.
Many area police agencies, hospitals, schools and private businesses that already have security cameras are expanding and upgrading their technology. The city of Dayton is even considering putting an eye in the sky.
Some officials claim video surveillance can help reduce crime and provides authorities with valuable evidence and crime-fighting tools. But civil-rights groups claim privacy is a fundamental American value, and the proliferation of video surveillance is a direct threat to a free society.
“Invasive surveillance technologies always make life easier for police, and if police could search your house without a warrant, that would save them a lot of time,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the ACLU. “But as a society we’ve decided there should be certain limits on the power of the police, and surveillance cameras that take photos of everyone needlessly sacrifices the privacy of many innocent people.”
The Englewood Police Department operates a sophisticated network of cameras, which can track fleeing criminals even as they travel from one side of town to the other end.
Englewood’s camera system has played a crucial role in bringing some criminals to justice. Video clips show surprised thieves, who believed they got away scot-free, being arrested by police. The thieves were unaware police dispatchers were watching their every move and relaying their location onto officers.
Beginning in December, Englewood started upgrading its video network from analogue to high-definition digital cameras. The new cameras provide a much clearer picture, and they can cover a much larger area because of improved zoom capabilities. The improving picture quality is similar to the difference between VHS tapes and DVDs.
“With the new technology, we can see greater distances with greater clarity,” said Englewood police Chief Mark Brownfield. “The cameras have helped us cover the city better than we could before.”
Oakwood in 2011 spent almost $40,000 to install two security cameras in the Far Hills business district and a couple in Shafor and Orchardly parks. The city also acquired a mobile camera that can be placed wherever needed.
The cameras, which have infrared capabilities, help police monitor areas that are popular targets of vandals, thieves and other criminals, said Alex Bebris, Oakwood’s public safety director.
The cameras helped police identify a fraudster who was passing bad checks at some local businesses, Bebris said. Police had a photo of the suspect leaving a store, and they identified the crook by reviewing police mugshots. The suspect was wearing the same clothing worn during a previous arrest.
“The (cameras) are there to augment the officers — they don’t replace the officers or take the place of patrolling,” Bebris said.
Surveillance cameras have been available for years, but the film quality and expense usually made them impractical or unobtainable. But camera costs have fallen while the technology has improved.
Cameras are now everywhere and nearly impossible to avoid.
Cameras are on ATM machines and traffic lights. They are in office buildings and elevators. They are in libraries, schools and playgrounds. Nearly every smartphone has a camera.
The University of Dayton has installed about 1,000 cameras in the last 15 years, school officials said. Huber Heights has between 33 to 35 cameras at each of its five elementary schools.
In the last couple of years, the city of Dayton has installed red light cameras and speed cameras at about 20 locations, officials said. The city recently approved installing surveillance cameras at the Dayton International Airport to help stop coyotes from wandering onto runways.
Dayton officials are considering spending about $120,000 to hire a local company — Persistent Surveillance Systems — to put a piloted aircraft in the sky that is equipped with high-tech cameras.
Eye in the sky
Flying about 10,000 feet above the city, the aircraft is capable of monitoring an area as large as downtown Dayton, and under the proposed contract, PSS would provide 120 hours of airborne surveillance for the city.
If the agreement is approved, police would determine flight times after analyzing crime data and detecting patterns. During a trial run, the aircraft cameras provided video evidence that helped solve a burglary and robbery case.
Dayton police Chief Richard Biehl said he wants to use technology to prevent crime, and the aerial camera has the potential to accomplish this goal. He said the cameras could help catch some criminals, and then police could advertise these arrests and let would-be criminals know their crimes may appear on film.
“We’d tell them, ‘You never know how your conduct can be monitored, including from the air,’” he said.
But Biehl said the city is still weighing the costs of the program against its benefits. City officials said there must be some community conversations about the technology, its capabilities and intended use before any final decision is made.
“If we are able to put together some rules on how the data is used, I think it stands a good chance of being put in place,” said City Commissioner Matt Joseph. “It’s still a big if, and we’ll have to look at it pretty closely.”
Public safety officials across Ohio said surveillance cameras in their communities have paid off in the form of lower crime rates and more evidence in prosecutions.
Columbus has about 157 cameras in five high-crime areas across the city, safety officials said.
The cameras helped reduce crime by as much as 33 percent in three of the neighborhoods, and the crime data from one neighborhood was essentially inconclusive, said Amanda Ford, assistant director of the Columbus Department of Public Safety.
The Cincinnati Police Department now operates about 110 cameras in high-activity areas, said Capt. Jeffrey Butler Jr., the city’s public safety camera project manager.
The cameras routinely help solve homicides, bank robberies, thefts and plenty of other crimes, and they are part of a multi-faceted law enforcement strategy that contributed to a 9 percent decrease in violent crime last year, Butler said.
Cleveland’s shared security surveillance program has helped authorities solve hundreds of crimes, said Harold Pretel, the commander of the Cleveland Division of Police Bureau of Homeland Services.
But the pervasiveness of surveillance cameras is an alarming trend that is rife with potential for abuse, said Mike Brickner, spokesman with the ACLU of Ohio.
Police agencies and others who have the ability to snoop will do so if given the capability, and there are insufficient checks and balances to ensure law-abiding citizens will not be subject to close and unwarranted scrutiny, Brickner said.
“If we give the government this power to look at what we are doing at all times, it’s a question of when and not if they will abuse that power,” he said. “We are becoming a surveillance state, and unfortunately that goes hand-in-hand with being a police state.”
Governments, police agencies and others should not be able to monitor and document where you go, what you do and who you are with at all times just because the activity may help in some criminal cases, said Soghoian, with the ACLU.
“Should every innocent person be surveilled so the government can have a trail of data it can use down the road to catch guilty people?” asked Soghoian, who will be speaking about increased surveillance by law enforcement and telecommunications companies at the UD School of Law on March 13.