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Eyes In The Sky: Surveillance Cameras Dot The Bloomington Cityscape

up close security camera

A surveillance camera in a city parking garage, one of 294 such cameras owned by the city of Bloomington. (Tyler Lake, WTIU/WFIU News)

Bloomington resident Carl Pearson has seen the security cameras hanging from light poles in parks and downtown areas of the city. He says the cameras have changed the atmosphere in the parks and he wants to know more about how the city and the police use them. As part of the City Limits: Bloomington series, Pearson asked this question:

“I would like to know how many security cameras there are in Bloomington,” Pearson says. “And I would like to know how the police use those security cameras to what end and their effects.”

As far as the Bloomington Police Department goes, Captain Ryan Pedigo says besides the ones immediately outside the police station, they only have six cameras up in the city. One is in Seminary Square Park, the rest are clustered in the downtown core.

Police cam up close
A Bloomington Police Department surveillance camera along Kirkwood Avenue. (Tyler Lake, WTIU/WFIU News)

“They are along the Kirkwood Avenue east of walnut, there’s one art Kirkwood and Washington, Lincoln, Grant, all clearly labeled with police they have the patch on the side of them,” he says.

Pedigo says BPD only accesses the footage if a crime is reported.

“They are not monitored all the time, they do record and it usually saved the video footage for a couple of weeks and then it simply overwrites the footage,” Pedigo says.

But Pearson says he worries that cameras meant to address crime, end up affecting everyone else.

“When you saturate an area with security cameras you are solving the potential problems perhaps, but you are also causing other people’s behavior’s to change simply because they are on camera,” Pearson says.

Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow at the Center for Cybersecurity Research Fred Cate says cameras don’t have to lead to a surveillance state.

“The real question is what governs the use of those cameras. If, when we installed those cameras, we also put in place strong laws that restricted their use, provided effective oversight, and ensured meaningful enforcement, the cameras could be a good thing,” he says. “Too often, however, we invest in new technologies without a clearly stated purpose—and if you don’t know the purpose you can’t evaluate whether the technology was effective in achieving it—and without putting in place appropriate governance mechanisms.”

Cate says not having those mechanism is more likely to lead to a surveillance state.

Captain Pedigo says the police department doesn’t want to change the average person’s behavior, but it also doesn’t want to hide the fact that an area is under surveillance. He says it is very rare for those cameras to be used in investigations.

And he said this about a question Pearson had about whether the cameras are meant for suppression of crime or documenting it:

“I honestly think a little bit of both, when we put the cameras up on Kirkwood, we wanted to make sure they were very clearly labeled, that they were police department cameras,” Pedigo says. “They say police in bold lettering, they had the police department patch on the side of them.”

security camera
A surveillance camera near People's Park in Bloomington. (Tyler Lake, WTIU/WFIU News)

Cate argues that surveillance cameras have been shown to have little impact on crime suppression.

"If they have much effect at all it is to shift the location of the crime to a place that isn’t under surveillance. They have been useful in documenting crimes and other misbehavior, including misbehavior by government officials,” he says.

He says that cell phones we all carry are collectively the world’s largest surveillance network.

“It seems a little late to be arguing over whether surveillance exists or whether it is a good thing," he says. "Surveillance has many valuable uses for both government officials and for individuals dealing with the government and with each other.”

Police cameras are just a handful of the cameras in the city -- a drop in the bucket compared to the cameras owned by the city of Bloomington according to Deputy Mayor Mick Renneisen.

“So there are 294 cameras in our inventory over about 12 different sites, the bulk of those are in our parking garages,” he says.

Renneisen says city leaders have put a lot of thought into the tension between security and privacy.

“There is a fine line between surveillance and security I think we are on the side of we are just using this for security and for after the fact incidents,” Renneisen says.

Cate says different people may disagree where to draw that line, but he says what is most important is that it is down clearly and publicly.

“What happens all too frequently is that a new technology emerges," he says. "Law enforcement, for the very best of purposes, begins to deploy the technology before there are rules in place governing appropriate use. Then the public finds out what is going on, often through a whistleblower or after evidence gathered from is used in court, and only then do we start to have a discussion about where to draw the line.

Renneisen says the first cameras the city installed were in response to concerns from the community about safety.

switchyard park
Deputy Mayor Mick Renneisen says around 50 cameras will be put up in Switchyard Park when it's complete. (Tyler Lake, WTIU/WFIU News)

He also says the city has plans to install even more cameras. About 50 cameras are planned for the new Switchyard Park which will stretch about a mile when it’s complete.

He echoes Pedigo in saying that no one is watching city cameras in real time, and all the video they capture is deleted after 30 days.

The Police department can access footage from more than just police and city owned cameras. More and more businesses also have their own cameras and cameras seem to come almost standard with new construction.

“Every new building that you see going up has security cameras on it,” Captain Pedigo says.

And he says most businesses and property owners are happy to share their footage to help the police in an investigation.

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