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And speaking of cameras

Well, if you don’t like red light cameras, you certainly won’t like downtown surveillance cameras.

[The Houston Police Department] is pushing ahead with plans to install more than a dozen closed-circuit video cameras downtown and across Houston, hoping the devices can deter crime and illegal dumping.

Downtown, four cameras could be in place in a matter of weeks. They would monitor street-level activity in the blocks of Main just south of Buffalo Bayou, where there’s a high concentration of nightclubs and restaurants.

“What I’m hoping is to have some behavior modifications, in terms of giving the public an expectation that the police are there, or at least watching to some extent the activity in these public venues,” said Executive Assistant Chief Martha Montalvo.

The department hopes the cameras, which will be identified with signs so people know they’re under surveillance, will help them monitor late-night activity on weekends around Main Street’s bars and restaurants. The idea is that the cameras would deter some crime, and allow for quicker response to incidents that do occur.

Additionally, the department plans to install and maintain as many as 13 cameras in secret locations across the city to deter illegal dumping in empty lots. That program, too, could expand, the department’s chief financial officer, Joseph Fenninger, recently told City Council staffers.

Let’s draw a distinction here between Main Street cameras and empty lot cameras, whose purpose is to catch those that dump trash. I at least am a lot more comfortable with the latter than I am with the former, as long as its focus is tightly defined.

The idea of using cameras for crime enforcement isn’t new. Police in Baltimore and Chicago, for example, deploy them across their cities, sometimes with flashing lights affixed as a warning. Officials in both cities say they’ve seen crime reductions as a result.

In Houston, the idea has sparked some controversy, first with the red-light cameras, later with Chief Harold Hurtt’s plan to use cameras to watch for downtown crime.

When Hurtt pitched the idea for public surveillance cameras in February 2006, he said, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?”

That’s not the point, said Melissa Ngo, with the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“I am a law-abiding citizen, yet I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being watched at all times,” she said. “And not just being watched, being recorded for later viewing.”

Some civil liberties advocates argue that arrays of cameras not only raise concerns about unwarranted government monitoring of the law-abiding public, but do little to reduce crime.

A camera by itself won’t detect a crime that is occurring. They have to be monitored, said Randall Kallinen, a past president of Houston’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Unless you’re watching really closely, it may be difficult to pick up on a crime,” Kallinen said. “People watching the cameras grow bored really quickly.”

I’ve discussed these points before, and I remain skeptical. At least with a red light camera, you can make the claim that it’s only being used when a crime is actually occurring. I didn’t understand the justification for the downtown cameras last year when they were first proposed, and I don’t understand it now. I’d much rather see a commitment made to bring a greater police presence to downtown than to try this poor substitute.

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