Thursday, May 18, 2006

Technology and Parks

Two items on the last city council agenda really got me thinking. First, there were the concerns of Blaine's picnic. Then there was a follow up on the graffiti at the skate park case. Both of these cases do have something in common: law enforcement officers and security can't be everywhere at once.

With only 17 security officers, and 7000 attendees at the picnic, there is no way the officers on the ground could see everything that was going on. The problem with the parks is even worse. With only 5 park and lake police officers, and over 50 parks in the city, there is no way for them patrol every park every night. Even with the help of the SAPD, there will be long periods of time when no officer will be available to watch the parks. There is a solution though.

Next time you are in WalMart take a look at the top of some of the light poles and the top edge of the roof. You will see a lot of cameras. There are also signs all over reminding you that the cameras are there. These cameras have helped stores that use them reduce crimes in their parking lots dramatically. A new generation of that technology is becoming available that could help local law enforcement monitor public parks and facilities when no officer is there. It could also give them a view of large events that they wouldn't otherwise have. Adding these virtual eyes would help immensely.

With the emergence of wireless technology, installation of these cameras is relatively simple. Once power is supplied to the camera (which could be battery or solar power), and they are put in place, they are pretty much operational. They could connect to a wireless mesh network if the city gets one, or to an access point some distance away in a protected building or enclosure, which can then connect using services from an existing broadband internet supplier. All this video could then be monitored and recorded from one central location.

There are problems and concerns with this approach. First, there have to be safe guards in place. We need to ensure that these government owned cameras only monitor public facilities and events. We need to ensure they are only used for legitimate law enforcement, public safety, and government management functions. The facilities need to be posted with warnings that there is the possibility of video and audio monitoring. There need to be procedures in place that the recordings are erased or otherwise disposed of when no longer needed unless part of a court proceeding, and we need to ensure that access is limited to those that need access to carry out their job.

Graffiti at the skate park cost the taxpayers over $3,000 and permanently damaged the surface that was vandalized. That would probably have paid for a simple camera setup for the park. The profits from the picnic could probably pay for installation of cameras at the river stage. It's time to give this tool to our local law enforcement agencies, as long as we make sure the safe guards are there as well.

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