165 cameras watching residents and visitors, making it the most highly surveilled city per capita in the state, and possibly the nation.
By Joelle Farrell
On a sunny afternoon at H.M. Musser Park in Lancaster City, Vilma Caraballo pushed her grandson on a swing. Marion Young, 60, ate tortilla chips from her bagged lunch. And Maicol Ortiz, 19, sat on a brick wall, talking in Spanish with his 23-year-old girlfriend, Evelyn Monzon.
Above them, the scene was monitored by cameras installed at each corner of the park, part of an extensive, citywide surveillance system. By the end of July, Lancaster will have 165 cameras watching residents and visitors, making it the most highly surveilled city per capita in the state, and possibly the nation.
A similar program planned for Wilkes-Barre might soon steal that title, however.
Beyond the sheer number of cameras watching the city of 55,000, Lancaster’s program is unusual in that a private group, not police, monitors the cameras. The nonprofit Lancaster Community Safety Coalition provides its own training and is not overseen by any public agency.
Residents in the park recently had mixed reactions. The cameras are hidden inside black orbs hung from what look like white street lights. Inside the orbs the cameras swivel, pan, and zoom. They are powerful enough to make out a face or a license plate a block or more away.
“I like it,” said Caraballo, 51, who has asked that a camera be placed on her block. “I want them all over the city.”
Young, who works as a secretary at the courthouse, said, “I’m not doing anything bad. They can watch me all they want.”
Some, like 19-year-old Amanda Bachman, bemoan the cameras as another step in an increasingly regulated culture.
“What’s next?” Bachman said as she walked near the park. “You can’t get away with anything anymore. You can’t even smoke a cigarette in front of a building.”
The camera’s footage has helped police arrest people charged with homicide, assault, gun and drug sales, as well as lesser crimes: Staffers have called the police to report public drinking and two adults engaging in a “sex act” in a park, said the coalition’s executive director, Joseph R. Morales, who also serves on the City Council. In 2008, the coalition said, it made 492 calls to police, resulting in 82 arrests and 86 citations.
Supporters say it functions as a high-tech neighborhood watch group. This isn’t Big Brother watching, it’s the people next door.
“It’s a crucially important distinction because of the privacy issues that have come up,” said Dennis F. Cox, who was a part of a local crime commission that recommended installing the cameras. “It’s kind of a citizen effort . . . a way to have eyes and ears in the neighborhood.”
The coalition requires its 10 employees to undergo drug tests and a criminal-records check, and supervisors can track how employees use the cameras. If an operator tries to look into a window, the image inside the building is digitally blacked out, a safeguard installed to protect residents’ privacy in their homes.
The Supreme Court has ruled that people aren’t entitled to privacy in public places, said Stephen Henderson, an associate law professor at Widener Law. There are guidelines that law enforcement officials must follow, but none exist for private surveillance systems, Henderson said.
“You need those same safeguards built in,” Henderson said, “when private actors start conducting what are normally police functions.”
“You have all the potential for abuse and none of the accountability and oversight,” added Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Morales said he would welcome guidance from state legislators or federal authorities on how to regulate private firms surveilling a city.
Lancaster might be just the start of privately run city surveillance. Mayor J. Richard Gray said other cash-strapped cities had approached him to ask about the program.
Wilkes-Barre, a city of 41,000, plans to install 150 cameras this year, monitored by a nonprofit called Hawkeye, said City Administrator J.J. Murphy. The city’s mayor chose the board members who will lead the nonprofit. The $2.3 million project is to be funded almost entirely by gaming revenues.
Surveillance in Wilmington is also run by a nonprofit, not police.
While Philadelphia may have fewer police cameras per capita watching its 1.4 million residents (the city currently has 96 but plans to install 154 more, possibly by year’s end), privately operated cameras watch college campuses, banks, hotels, and other businesses.
“Do you think you’re ever not on a camera in downtown Philly?” said Lancaster Mayor J. Richard Gray.
Lancaster’s crime rate isn’t unusually high for a city of its size and demographics. There have been two killings this year, and 109 incidents of aggravated assault, up from 81 last year at this time, said Lancaster Police Lt. Todd Umstead.
The crime commission found that residents were most concerned with noise, litter, and vandalism. It recommended greater community policing and camera surveillance.
The coalition, which lists the fire chief, a former police captain, and the district attorney on its board, put up the first camera at King and Lime Streets, a known drug corner, in 2004.
The crime rate hasn’t changed much, but police say they’re better equipped to find perpetrators.
“Even when the camera doesn’t capture an actual crime in progress, it captures movements of people prior to and after the crime,” Umstead said.
David Greiner, 51, a lifelong Lancaster resident, was one of the company’s first watchers and now supervises the crew. He has called in fights, robberies, and an attempted sexual assault.
Two years ago, Greiner helped catch a murderer. He called police when a fight broke out in a large group on the street in March 2007. Shots were fired before police arrived, and a man ran to a nearby home.
Greiner directed the police to the building; the man, Abdul Walton, 22, of Philadelphia, had shaved his beard in an effort to disguise himself. Walton was convicted of first-degree murder.
Camera footage has led other defendants to plead guilty and persuaded reluctant witnesses to step forward, District Attorney Craig Stedman said.
For taxpayers, the benefit of having a private operator is clear: Donations pay for a third of the coalition’s expected $600,000 annual budget, and covered most of the $3 million start-up costs, Morales said.
“If you don’t have money for cops, you buy a damn camera and put it on the street corner,” said Steve Murray, who owns Zap & Co., a vintage clothing and furniture store on Queen Street. “It’s not Tehran or Tiananmen Square here.”