Federal Grants Bring Surveillance Cameras to Small Towns
Thursday, January 19, 2006
BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. -- This snowy village, in the shadow of Fall Mountain and alongside the iced-over Connecticut River, is the kind of place where a little of anything usually suffices. There are just eight full-time police officers on the town's force, two chairs in the barbershop and one screen in the theater.
A little of anything -- except surveillance cameras. Bellows Falls has decided it needs 16 of those.
Using federal grant money, police plan to put up the 24-hour cameras at such spots as intersections, a sewage plant and the town square. All told, this hamlet will have just three fewer police surveillance cameras than the District of Columbia, which has 181 times Bellows Falls's population.
Similar cameras are already up in the Virginia communities of Galax and Tazewell, where police can pan right down Main Street, and in tiny Preston, Md., with two police officers and five police cameras. An interest in public, permanent video surveillance -- as well as the federal dollars to pay for it -- seems to be flowing down to the smallest levels of American law enforcement.
So far, the growth of small-town surveillance camera systems has not received much national notice. But it already seems to be changing the way such Mayberry-size places are policed.
"People don't notice things" as they used to in Bellows Falls, said Keith Clark, the village's police chief. Instead, "now, technology is there to do that."
Large police departments have only started to embrace public surveillance in the past six years or so, long after privately owned cameras became ubiquitous at banks, ATMs and stores. D.C. police have placed their 19 cameras around downtown and Georgetown, and similar networks have gone up in places such as Baltimore, Chicago and New York.
But, despite the popularity of these systems, some critics still question whether they are any good at stopping crimes in progress. In Washington, for instance, the worst offense caught on police cameras so far seems to have been a car break-in -- in 2001.
"Nothing will be happening most of the time. Multiply that by several cameras with nothing happening, all the time. It's very difficult for any human being to be vigilant," said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, which gets federal funding to write guidelines for police procedures.
Small-town surveillance would seem to offer only a whole lot more nothing. Still, some smaller police departments have been drawn in: An informal search turned up 17 with 100 or fewer officers that either had a surveillance system or plans to put one up. All but two of these departments had either created or expanded their system since 2001.
They come as big as the department in Salisbury, Md., with 88 officers, which plans to put up seven cameras this year. The smallest included the Hoopa Valley Tribal Police in Northern California, where the nine-member force often has no officer on duty from 4 to 8 a.m.
In several cases, funding to buy cameras appears to have come from the federal government, either for community policing or homeland security.