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At Hawthorne's Eucalyptus Park, smile -- you're on camera

Police Department is so pleased with the apparent results of four recently installed video cameras at the city park that it's taking bids to install systems in several others. It's part of a trend.

February 01, 2010|By Jeff Gottlieb

You're never alone in Hawthorne's Eucalyptus Park.

At least not since police mounted four video cameras in the city park in April, sending real-time images to the station through a wireless connection, giving officers the ability to watch the entire 6.2 acres.

The experiment with the cameras is part of a mushrooming trend to deter or fight crime by installing video cameras in public places. San Francisco, Baltimore, Atlanta and Chicago have all placed cameras on streets and plazas. Los Angeles police have cameras in MacArthur Park and on some streets in Hollywood.

Lancaster officials are considering a more far-reaching plan to patrol the city with a camera-equipped airplane that would fly five miles above the city and record activity below.

The effect that video cameras have on crime is still up for debate, and civil liberty advocates have decried the presence of government cameras as a Big Brother tactic. But in Hawthorne, police contend, the results at the park have been amazing.

"Crime is basically nonexistent there," said Lt. Jim Royer. "Most remarkable thing I've seen in 27 years in law enforcement."

It's not as if murderers and rapists made Eucalyptus Park their hangout, and police did not provide statistics on the effectiveness of the cameras. For the most part, Royer said, the variety of crimes at the park were alcohol violations, marijuana use and drug dealing, truancy and vandalism. The most serious crimes, he said, occurred when people using the skate park were robbed of skateboards or iPods.

Still, there were enough problems that Royer would rotate police cars into the park every hour from 3 p.m. when school let out until 9 or 10 p.m. "It was a drain on our resources," he said.

Several computers in the police station are connected to the cameras through a secure connection, and officers will periodically monitor them.

"It's just become part of what we do," he said. "I don't know if you want to call it Big Brother, but that's what it is."

If police receive a call about a problem at the park, officers can use the cameras to take a look before sending a car. Two cameras are in fixed positions, and two can pan, tilt and zoom.

"I could zoom in and see the freckles on your face," Royer said.

The video is saved onto a hard drive, so if a crime is reported, investigators can go back and look for clues.

The cameras were donated by Iron Sky, a video surveillance company based in suburban Houston. Hawthorne is getting bids to place cameras in three other parks. In four to six months, the department hopes to have the cameras hooked up to monitors in patrol cars.

In Great Britain, which has more than 4 million surveillance cameras in public places, they were credited with helping to identify bombing suspects in the 2005 terrorist attacks in London.

Civil libertarians worry about loss of privacy.

"When you're out on the street, you expect you may be seen by other people," said Peter Bibring, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. "You don't expect that somebody will be watching with a camera capable of zooming in with telephoto accuracy or making a recording that can be replayed, shared with other people and preserved forever."

He said studies, mostly in Britain, show that camera operators tend to target people based on race or focus on women for voyeuristic reasons.

Some studies have shown that surveillance cameras have minimal effects on crime.

A 2008 study by USC graduate students found that cameras in the Jordan Downs housing project and along Hollywood Boulevard made little difference.

A similar study by the UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law found that surveillance cameras installed in high-crime areas of San Francisco had little effect on homicide, drug dealing and prostitution. But it did find a decline in purse-snatching and auto burglary within 100 feet of the cameras.

People in Eucalyptus Park were unaware they were being watched.

"There's cameras?" said one 15-year-old, a 10th-grader at nearby Hawthorne Math and Science Academy. "I'm going to spread the word."

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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