Surveillance Gains Favor as Tool to Limit Crime; Atlanta's Entertainment District Has Cameras; Other Cities Are Weighing the Options

Article excerpt


ATLANTA -- On a typical weekend night, the heart of Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood buzzes.

Parking attendants wave cars into lots. Bouncers stand watch at clubss. People filter into numerous bars and restaurants.

And from above, electronic eyes take it all in.

In the wake of several high-profile shootings in the entertainment area, a group of business owners raised $100,000 a year ago to mount surveillance cameras that can zoom in to read a license plate or zero in on a face in the crowd. Signs posted along the sidewalk warn those who walk by that they're being watched.

The video link to a nearby police precinct -- or at least the warnings -- have had an effect.

In the six months after the cameras turned on, crime rates in the area dropped 30 percent.

Despite criticism about privacy concerns, more businesses and city leaders are considering surveillance cameras as a crime-fighting tool.

With homeland security funds, Chicago is posting hundreds of cameras, some in high-crime areas, that can sound an alarm when they "hear" a gunshot.

New Orleans also used federal money to pay for digital cameras around the city. In Georgia, Athens turned on its downtown surveillance system a month ago with 15 cameras police say have helped in a handful of investigations.

While the form of monitoring has been historically slow to catch on in the United States compared to some other countries, the Sept. 11 attacks and recent London bombings have boosted discussion for investing in the technology.

Investigators used images from London's closed-circuit television cameras to help identify the men they say carried the bombs that killed 56 people July 7, and suspects' photos were captured from cameras in the repeat attack Thursday that did not result in any serious injuries.

The bombing immediately had many American policymakers taking another look at the issue of surveillance and how it might be used, said Jack Riley, a homeland security expert with the Rand Corp. think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

The cameras can help in several ways, Riley said. "One is a deterrence effect against people who want to commit crimes ranging from pick-pocketing and fare jumping to committing acts of terrorism, and the other as a potential, post-incident aid to investigations," Riley said. "But as London obviously demonstrates, since there are very few transit systems that are as well-cameraed as London is, they're not a complete deterrent. …


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