The Cameras Are Coming – September 27, 2007

In 2001, then-Police Chief Chris Gallagher proposed installation of a video camera to overlook the Arcata Plaza from atop the Bank of America on the Southeast corner. A camera was actually mounted in place, though never connected. After considerable protest and discussion at council meetings, the council nixed the idea.

But that didn’t stop a private business from setting up a newfangled Internet video camera to gaze down on the Plaza from Jacoby’s Storehouse. Neuroscape Communication for a time fed a lo-res image of the Plaza’s southwest corner onto the Internet via the now-moribund arcata.com (currently featuring the latest news from 2004). There was protest – someone put a cardboard sign on the Plaza lawn stating “WARNING: You are under video surveillance.” But beyond the area of that corner’s planter box, the image was so blurry you could barely tell what gender the people walking by were. The Arcata Eye newspaper would occasionally receive castigating letters about the intrusion on privacy, on the erroneous assumption that the newspaper operated the camera (even Chris Gallagher thought the Eye maintained the camera).

Eventually, Neuroscape moved to Eureka and took its camera with it. But that doesn’t mean that the video ended. Selected portions of downtown are now monitored by private cameras, and the Arcata Police Department places cameras on high-crime areas, for example when a site is repeatedly vandalized. Further, Humboldt State University’s recently completed Infrastructure Project wired the campus for video at strategic locations, with feeds from numerous cameras streaming back to University Police headquarters in the Student & Business Services Building. Beyond security applications, video has proliferated massively, with YouTube and video-capable cell phone making it a daily entertainment option. All in all, it’s a different techno-world than it was six years ago.

What’s not changed is the popularity of the Arcata Plaza with people of all kinds – hacky sackers, picnickers, lunchers, tourists, drunks, dopers and people with issues, among many others. According to Police Chief Randy Mendosa, 15,535 of the City-wide total of 34,321 calls for service last year came from the Plaza. Of the 1,471 arrests in Arcata, 773 – more than half – were made on the Plaza.

In a staff report, Mendosa asserts that video monitoring would bother deter crime and, when it occurs within view of a camera, aid in apprehension of suspects. Last week, on a bare 3–2 majority (with Mayor Harmony Groves and Councilmember Paul Pitino dissenting), the council approved in concept the installation of video cameras both on the Plaza and at City Hall.

The decision was made despite protests by a few citizens, including attorney Greg Allen and former City Councilmember Dave Meserve. Objections included the potential for abuse, such as the ogling of women, intrusions on privacy and civil liberties and encroaching Big Brotherism. Meserve disputed the crime-fighting effectiveness of the cameras. But Plaza business owner Matt Babich urged approval of the cameras in hopes that they might help keep the abuse level down on the Plaza. he said he was more concerned about the proliferation of privately-operated and unregulated video cameras.

Nothing will happen anytime soon. Mendosa will next consult with video professionals to determine the capabilities, cost and technical details surrounding the camera system, then take it back to the council for approval.

So, what’s the frequency, Kenneth? We’re confronted with another yet set of starkly different assertions: that cameras are useful and effective, or that they’re useless and improper. Can they be bother, either or neither?

On the Sept. 27 Humboldt Review, we’ll first talk to Chief Mendosa, who will make his case for the cameras. Then we’ll have City Councilmember Alex Stillman, who voted in favor of the cameras, and Dave Meserve, who objects to the cameras for a variety of reasons. We’ll then talk to Angie Wong of Ojo Technology to find out what the cameras’ capabilities really are.

Calls: (707) 786-5486. E-mail: studio@khum.com.

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