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Video Cameras Capture Images, Crooks in O.C. : Surveillance: Criminals are being identified, but so too are the law-abiding. That worries civil libertarians.

May 28, 1994|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It follows you step by step to the bank window. It scans your face at the automated teller machine, recording every detail, from the mole on your chin to the style of your favorite shirt.

Soon, it will track your whereabouts at 35 different locations on Orange County freeways, at a cost of more than $10 million. It has the power to record your facial tics and skin color and file them along with your license plate number.

It is the video surveillance camera, and if you own a business or work in law enforcement, chances are you're singing its praises. If you're a First Amendment lawyer or a civil libertarian, however, you may see it as one more weapon in the hands of big government.

Its impact was demonstrated dramatically here recently in helping to solve two major crimes in a matter of weeks.

Police said that such a camera positioned across the street from a nightclub where a beating death occurred last week offered a perfect view of the crime--and led to the arrest Monday of a suspect in Northern California.

Parolee Edward Patrick Morgan Jr., 28, of Orange was apprehended in connection with the May 20 murder of Leanora Annette Wong, 23, of Huntington Beach, whom police said Morgan met at the Australian Beach Restaurant & Nightclub.

Across the street from the Orange club is a high-tech pharmaceutical company, which has on its roof a sophisticated surveillance camera. That camera, said Orange Police Lt. Timm Browne, "was placed right over the crime scene."

Browne declined to elaborate on the details of the tape of the crime. But he said private surveillance cameras also played a key role in the investigation of another homicide in the same shopping center in Orange. In that slaying, a security guard inside a movie theater was fatally wounded by a bullet fired through a plate-glass window, and three Santa Ana men were arrested a few weeks later in connection with the shooting.

The City Shopping Center, where both the nightclub and the movie theater are located, is "packed" with surveillance cameras, said Sgt. Barry Weinstein.

The gunman ran away, Browne said, but the camera captured his likeness.

Whether it's found at the local video store, the corner 7-Eleven, the bank, the freeway or the local synagogue, the video surveillance camera is playing an ever-increasing role in American life. And the technology promises to become cheaper and far more effective in the future.

Many say that not only does it help stop crime from happening, but it plays an almost omniscient role in prosecuting suspects when crimes do occur. It is precisely the fear of crime and the perception that lawlessness is so widespread that sociologists say account for the growing use of such surveillance in the first place.

But First Amendment attorneys and civil libertarians say that even a real fear of crime is not enough to offset the potential invasion of privacy that such devices represent. Critics warn that the increasing use of video surveillance offers yet another window into private lives to individuals and institutions who have the potential to abuse it--and who often do.

"The problem with the increased and clandestine use of such technology is the fact that it's utterly indiscriminate," said Century City attorney Stephen F. Rohde, who specializes in First Amendment law. "Essentially, we're snooping on everyone for the sake of capturing a random criminal. We're doing this not only in an ephemeral way, but also for the sake of recording, preserving, cataloguing and maintaining information in these vast and scary inventories usually controlled by government.

"We're rapidly becoming a Peeping Tom society. And we keep accepting--incrementally--a level of surveillance, intrusion and inspection that is chipping away at our zone of simple human privacy, which, in case we've forgotten, is a basic American right."

Nevertheless, everyone from merchants to police detectives to rabbis says that surveillance cameras provide a bold deterrent to crime while increasing the comfort level of those who have them.

Jeff George, an executive with the Silent Watchman Division of National Guardian Security Services Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, which sells surveillance systems to corporations across the country, said the technology is exploding while the price is plummeting.

George said the Florida Legislature recently mandated the use of video surveillance cameras in every convenience store in the state. National Guardian also sells systems to school districts for use in classrooms and hallways--even on buses.

"They record students riding on the buses," George said. "They capture violence on the buses. They can spot unruly children and, in that sense, are useful for disciplinary purposes."

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