Expanded public safety camera program approved

Police Chief Jeremy Bowers explains to the City Council the benefits of the public safety cameras, and the images they produce.

Two-and-a half years after first authorizing a pilot program for cameras at the intersection of Oakland Avenue and Grand Avenue, the Piedmont City City Council on Monday night unanimously approved putting out a request for proposals for installation of “public safety cameras” at four other intersections in the city, at Grand Avenue and Wildwood, Grand Avenue and Rose Avenue, Park Boulevard and Trestle Glen Road and Moraga Avenue and Highland Avenue.

Different from “automatic license plate reader” cameras that focus on vehicle plates, the public safety cameras capture a wider swath. They zero in on scenes such as public sidewalks, parks, street intersections, and other places where people have “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” as stated in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.   

Various people connected with the process, which began in May 2017 with council approval of the Grand-and-Oakland pilot cameras, said citizen support for the program was strong if not universal, and that the pilot cameras have been instrumental in helping police solve crimes and get them charged in court.

“We live in a major metropolitan area, and things happen,” police Chief Jeremy Bowers told the council Monday. “And I’ll tell you — the D.A. loves video.”

City Administrator Sara Lillevand said that the cameras can save detectives valuable time in providing information. “These cameras are an investigative tool and a (police) force multiplier,” she said.

Monday night’s vote is the latest action in a series of steps that started in May 2017, when the council approved a pilot camera program for the cameras as Oakland and Grand. Recognizing that such cameras have drawn criticism in some cities as infringing on privacy and/or as overly intrusive, a series of five community meetings was organized by police officials and members of the city’s Public Safety Committee in 2018 and 2019 to hear residents’ concerns and opinions.

Dave Metz of consulting firm FM3 also noted an online survey in 2019 in which 404 people — almost all of them Piedmont citizens — gave their opinions on the public safety cameras. The end result of the survey and the public meetings was that 87 percent of respondents support the public safety program, 69 percent of them “strongly.”

Though no one spoke Monday night in opposition to the cameras, a separate online survey about public safety cameras was conducted in 2019 by democracyGPS, a website founded by a computational physicist and Piedmont resident Chris Krenn. He told the Public Safety Committee in December that 42 people had weighed in on that survey. There was some negative feedback on that platform, Krenn said, particularly about the prospect of cameras with facial recognition.

Metz acknowledged that specific concern, and the cost — an estimated $45,000 to $50,000 for each intersection, plus 5 to 10 percent each year of maintenance — was also mentioned as a concern. But overall, he said that, based on the survey and on reaction from the public meetings, about 12 percent of respondents oppose the idea of the safety cameras.

Contact Sam Richards at sam.richards4344@gmail.com   

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