Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Despite pockets of crime, critics say the cameras are taking police power too far.
As far as big cities go, Portland is pretty safe. According to the 2010-2011 City Crime Rankings from CQPress, the city of Portland ranks 174th in the listing of cities with the most crime – about the middle of the pack of 400 U.S. cities. Among metropolitan areas, Portland ranks 140th out of 347.
These numbers are part of what made it seem a little rash when Portland Police Bureau Chief Mike Reese asked the city council to approve a policy that would allow him to make deals with private property owners to place surveillance cameras on their property to aid in law enforcement and crime prevention. These cameras – used widely in big cities like London and New York, as well as smaller places like Chattanooga – are seen as a deterrent to crime in areas that have been inundated by criminal activities. In Portland, where the crime rate has been steady since the 1960s, inundation isn't quite the most accurate term.
Police Bureau spokesperson Sergeant Peter Simpson says that 1960s-level crime rate is a positive stability in the city, but that there are still pockets where crime is a big problem. One of those pockets, a roughly 50-block neighborhood called Old Town/Chinatown, has been a hotbed of drug crime for decades, says Simpson, and is the main reason the chief proposed the surveillance cameras.
According to crime statistics reported on the Portland Police Bureau's CrimeStats website, the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood saw 33 drug-related arrests in April, compared with two in Arbor Lodge, one in Brooklyn, and 0 in Homestead. Only a handful of other neighborhoods in the city had one-month figures above a single digit. Downtown, though, had a significantly higher tally, with 65 drug arrests in April.
The drug problem in Portland is highly concentrated, which is why Simpson argues the cameras are needed. The policy would make it so that private business owners would have no liability as a result of the cameras' installation and operation, and that police could remotely tap into those video feeds whenever necessary.
"We hope that, one, they are a deterrent, but two, we can deploy our resources more efficiently," Simpson says. "I think most of the point is to make it obvious that you're being filmed. And if that's a deterrent for people, great. It certainly won't be a deterrent for everybody."
But others argue that the cameras aren't needed and they won't do any good.
"Our general position is it's a waste of resources," ACLU of Oregon Executive Director David Fidanque told The Oregonian. "Video surveillance does not prevent crime, and it's not necessarily helpful in solving unsolved crimes."
Dan Handelman agrees. He's a representative of Portland Copwatch, a citizen-run organization promoting police accountability, and he worries that the footage collected by the cameras and their ability to be tilted and zoomed gives too much data to the police.
"For the police to operate any kind of video cameras on an ongoing basis without any direct suspicion that any criminal activity is going on is, in our opinion, against state law, and a bad idea," says Handelman.
He points to a state law passed in 1981 that prohibits law enforcement from collecting or maintaining information about the social, political, or religious affiliations of people unless it directly relates to an investigation of criminal activity. "These cameras are unnecessary and they're just giving the police way too much information that they don’t need."
The city council seems likely to approve the policy. After the idea was first proposed, the council asked the Police Bureau to refine its protocol to ensure the cameras wouldn't be used improperly – to spy through random windows, for example. A second hearing on the idea has been pushed to a meeting on May 30. According to Simpson, the Police Bureau already has the camera equipment on hand and is just waiting for the word to start the installation. He says they'll probably just start with one camera, in Old Town/Chinatown.
"Certainly if it was very successful we might look to expand the project to various parts of the city," Simpson says.
That's precisely what worries opponents like Handelman. He says that if the council approves the new policy, it'll open the door for these cameras to pop up on properties all over the city, and essentially give police permission to keep an almost ubiquitous eye on the city at all times.
"George Orwell wrote 1984 as a warning," Handelman says, "not a blueprint."
Photo credit: David Moir / Reuters