July 10, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
Margarita Quinones tells anyone who's up to no good near her
Park Street jewelry store about the security cameras across the
street - from passersby drinking beer to the two armed, masked
men who tried to rob her a year and a half ago.
The thing is, although Quinones loves the idea of lining Park Street with
more than 40 security cameras, there's no funding in place for the full
system yet, and there's only one test camera on the street now. It's a half-mile
away, and until Friday afternoon, it wasn't recording anything.
But the robbers who came into Veronica's Jewelry didn't know that back
in February 2004.
"I said, 'You know what? You don't know it, but right now, that camera
that's on that building is taping everything you're doing,'" Quinones
said, telling the story of how she fooled two men before slipping by them
as they looked for the cameras. "So you can take the money, but you're
not going to get away from the police. Because they're going to
come get you."
Quinones got the idea about the cameras from a meeting of the Spanish American
Merchants Association the night before she was robbed. In what began with
a $14,000 study paid for by Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance,
the association hopes to have the state help pay for a $330,000, 44-camera
system that would line Park Street from Park Terrace to Main Street. The
goal is to improve public safety, protect business investments and deter
crime, said Julio Mendoza, the association's executive director.
"Park Street is doing well, but we want to make sure that we maintain
it that way," Mendoza said.
In an unrelated move, Hartford police and the Northside Institutions Neighborhood
Alliance are at the very early stages of considering a neighborhood camera
Nationwide, the idea of fighting crime with cameras is gaining ground.
Baltimore, for instance, will soon have more than 150 cameras in its Inner
Harbor area, its downtown, and some troubled crime areas. The $10 million
program is modeled after similar ones in London, Chicago and Jersey City.
The cameras do have their critics. Annette Lamoreaux, legal director of
Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, said Hartford needs more police officers,
not more gizmos. Video cameras can have the negative effect of forcing crime
into even more dangerous areas that are not being watched, she said. Also,
personal privacy becomes a quick issue, she said.
"Let's say you're having an affair," she said. "You're
walking down the street with the person. ... Should somebody be able to
subpoena those records in a divorce proceeding? The potential for abuse
is quite staggering."
But supporters like Quinones insist the cameras will only be doing what
police already have the right to do - monitoring public spaces.
"If you're going to do something illicit, well, go and do it in your
house," she said. "Because we're not going to tolerate it on our
streets, nor in our store, nor in our community."
Eastern Avenue is an artery that brings people from outside Baltimore to
the heart of what is known as Greektown. About five years ago, when the
drug trade in Greektown's commercial corridor on Eastern Avenue was a problem,
neighborhood advocates decided to put up two cameras looking at five blocks
for a total cost of about $250,000.
"We're not doing this to look into people's windows or people's businesses," said
Todd Bonicker, chairman of the public safety initiative of the Greektown
Community Development Corp. "Folks feel better that this is out there,
that it will help the neighborhood rebound from a period of decline."
In Greektown, the cameras are monitored about 15 to 20 hours a week by
volunteers who report any suspicious activity to the police, Bonicker said.
The folks at Greektown are also considering software that can be designed
to recognize suspicious activity - Was that a handshake, or was it a drug
transfer? Was that a family waiting for a ride or a group of guys loitering?
- and alert the viewer to it, he said. Then it would be up to the viewer
to decide whether to call police.
By the end of the year, the Baltimore City Police Department hopes to have
seven cameras trained on the Inner Harbor, 20 portable cameras for spot
use by police on two hours' notice, 50 cameras monitoring downtown, and
what will be 80 more covering some of the city's crime-ridden neighborhoods,
said Matt Jablow, a police department spokesman. Most of the cameras are
monitored in real time, some by police, some by volunteers, he said.
The hefty price tag has been paid for with a combination of homeland security
funding and drug money seized by police, he said.
"We haven't heard any complaints from the people in the neighborhoods
where the cameras are going up," Jablow said.
And, Jablow said, they can be useful - not long ago, a missing baby girl was
found when she was spotted on a camera with the 17-year-old who was supposed
to be watching her. Since the downtown cameras were launched in May, the police
have made 57 arrests in which the cameras played a role, he said.
Taking It Slow
Perched high above the corner of Park and Zion streets is a little black
hemisphere of glass. Gamblers might recognize it as similar to the casino's
eye on the blackjack table, but Mendoza and others are hoping residents
will soon recognize it as the neighborhood's eye on crime. It is a pilot
camera that was activated in the spring.
Freddy Ortiz, who works the counter at the Santiago Market at that corner,
says he's not sure if people even know the camera is there, much less fear
it. Just the other night, a few guys all but destroyed a small street-side
tree that is clearly in the camera's line of sight, he said.
Friday afternoon, the camera began recording the corner. Video fed to the
city public works department can be checked if a crime has occurred.
Talks for a citywide system are still preliminary, said police department
spokeswoman Nancy Mulroy. If a city-sponsored program emerges, it could
begin with a pilot in Asylum Hill, she said.
Cameras wouldn't be new to Hartford. More than 45 cameras already peer
about the city's major intersections, but federal funding guidelines limit
their use to monitoring traffic, Mulroy said.
"It's a priority for the chief and a priority for the mayor, I understand," she
said, adding a bit of caution about the cost of cameras and the
manpower it would take to monitor them.
"The city can't take on enormous new projects," she said. "We
have to balance our resources."
State Sen. John W. Fonfara, D-Hartford,
supports the Park Street plan enthusiastically, he said. "We all know that we can't have a police officer on every
corner," Fonfara said, adding that he wants to speak with the mayor
and police chief about monitoring the video cameras. "But this would
be a good tool for the police department."
"As much as it's an enforcement tool, it's a deterrent," he
For now, Margarita Quinones said she'll continue to do what she's done
- scare people by the mere thought of cameras, even if the reality of a
camera on every corner is a distant dream.
"I say, 'You know something, sir?
Did you know that, here on Park Street, we have cameras that are taping
everything that you are doing?' I do that to everyone."
"They say to me, 'Really?'"
"I say, 'Really.'
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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