The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department has more than a hundred new security cameras Uptown. They were purchased through a federal grant for the Democratic National Convention. Nearly five months later, they’re still in place. But CMPD says they could be put to better use in high-crime areas.
CMPD’s Video Observation Room is a little bit sci-fi.
“This is about as good as it gets,” says Captain Steve Willis.
He points past two rows of desks and monitors to a flashing wall—a mosaic of 42-inch high-definition TVs. Twenty-four giant screens flit between images of streets, intersections, and Uptown parking lots.
“Each of those monitors can display a single camera image, four cameras, eight cameras—whatever we put up there,” says Willis. “So, if we’re working a particular operation and it benefits to make one camera image across four 42-inch monitors, then we can certainly do that.”
It’s quiet on Monday. Four officers in street clothes control the direction and zoom of more than 500 cameras. The vast majority look out on major intersections for traffic reasons. Over 100 are in Uptown, the safest area of the city. Most of the cameras came from the DNC. Police want to move about 40 of those into high-crime areas, along with other DNC equipment like gunshot-detecting sensors. Captain Willis says that will expand the force’s reach.
“We only have so many officers and so many cars that can be in so many places at once,” he says.
The Druid Hills neighborhood is a likely camera location, with a violent crime rate four times the city average.
“It would be a great idea to have security cameras all over this area down here,” says Johnny Harris, who has owned a barbershop on Statesville Avenue for 30 years. “It helps the police in finding their suspects quicker, and I like that idea. Plus it prevents crime; when people know there’s a camera on them, they’ll be less likely to commit crime.”
Studies are mixed about the effectiveness of cameras—they tend to vary by the city and the report’s author. CMPD doesn’t have any statistics about how cameras have reduced crime in Charlotte, but police say they have caught break-ins and assaults on tape Uptown, which has helped solve cases.
Wherever cameras are added, questions about privacy tend to follow.
“There’s a real fear that they can begin tracking individuals’ movements, whether or not they are a suspect in a criminal investigation,” says Mike Meno, spokesman for the North Carolina chapter of the ACLU. “I think that’s something every citizen should be worried about.”
Charlotte’s 500 cameras pale in comparison to Chicago’s 8,000 to 10,000. To boost its numbers, CMPD wants to connect to the cameras that private businesses have placed outside their stores. Captain Willis says no businesses have agreed yet, because that part of the plan is in its early stages. Mike Ryans, the manager of Mr. Charles Chicken and Fish, says they can use his cameras.
“My privacy is my privacy,” Ryans says. “But, if I can put a camera here or there to help the community or to help the safety of Charlotte, I don’t have a problem with it.”
A few people in the neighborhood worried police can use the tapes to track their movements even if they haven’t committed a crime. They also wouldn’t go on my tape. Captain Willis says that’s not the intention, but he also points out that cameras are now part of public life at this point.
“Everywhere you go, I mean even if you go to the mall, there are cameras at the mall. When you go into the individual stores at the mall, there’s cameras in there , and they’re watching you make your transactions. They’re watching you select the clothes you’re going to select,” Willis says. “But, there intent is for the safety of their employees and the safety of you while you’re at their property—and that’s all we’re looking for in the city.”
The first cameras will be moved next month, and Willis says in April CMPD will meet with communities where the cameras have been installed. The expanded surveillance will also require more manpower, so the department is looking to train new camera operators.