February 7, 1996
2 Cities Turn to Audio or Video Surveillance of Streets
By TIMOTHY EGAN
EDWOOD CITY, Calif. -- The year 1984 may have passed with barely a sinister hint of George Orwell's police state. But in 1996, American law enforcement is watching you, and listening, using advanced technology to record what goes on in entire city blocks.
Since late December, police in this bayside suburb of San Francisco have hidden sophisticated listening devices throughout a section of the city that has been plagued by gang shootings and random gunfire.
The listening system of the Redwood City Police Department is designed to detect gunfire, send a signal back to headquarters, then locate the shots within 10 yards of where they were fired.
As part of a federal grant, a similar system may soon be installed in Washington or another major city.
In Baltimore, police last month wired a 16-block area of downtown with enough video cameras to allow them to monitor every street, sidewalk and alley 24 hours a day. The system watches -- and records -- everything.
"This is our way to say, 'We care, and we're watching,"' said Frank Russo, the director of public safety for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a business group working with the police to run the new system.
As the audio and video sentries move into neighborhoods, few people are complaining about the intrusion.
"When you ask people if they are more concerned about gunfire or police sensors, they say gunfire," said Bonnie Miller, a resident here who serves on a committee that will decide whether to make the listening system a permanent part of the Redwood City Police Department. "In fact, I would say the neighborhoods here want it in at all cost."
The digital watchdogs on the West Coast and the video patrol on the East Coast are the talk of law enforcement. A police officer's new best friend could turn out to be a recorder or a camera attached to a street light, police say.
"There's no question our system works," said Sgt. Frank Wilkins of the Redwood City Police Department. "We used to have so much gunfire New Year's Eve that people would just shudder inside their homes. This last New Year's was the quietest in a long time."
And that was before the system, which is in only an experimental stage, was even operating; the Redwood City police had put out the word that they MIGHT be testing it.
"When people think somebody is watching, or listening -- hey, even my heartbeat goes up when I drive by" a speed trap, Wilkins said. "It's perception."
Although these pilot projects are a long way from Robocop, the people who helped design them say they reflect the dawning of an age in which technology will augment, or even replace, human patrols.
Baltimore considered a novel addition to its video coverage: a "panic button" that could be activated during a crime.
"Basically you would hit a button near a telephone pole, and that would open up an intercom, so in a sense the police would then be listening as the crime took place as well as watching it all," Russo said. "Some of the toys that are out there now are really pretty amazing."
In the end, the panic button was rejected because of budget considerations. Even without it, the new system could cost up to $1 million for the 16-block trial area alone.
The Redwood City system, developed by Trilon Technology, a company based in the Bay Area, has cost $25,000 so far. It is still being tested in this racially diverse, middle-class city of 70,000 people.
But a similar system, using a type of sonar spun off of Defense Department research, may soon be installed in Washington or another major city. Officials at Alliant Techsystems, which is developing these acoustic sensors under a federal grant, say their system can reduce the time it takes the police to respond to a shooting by about 85 percent.
"You can get there so much faster that the difference may literally be between life and death," said Bill Labuda, who is developing the system.
Civil libertarians on the left and gun enthusiasts on the right have had only minimal complaints about the new system. But there is a concern that once a technology is in place, it can be used to pry, spy or otherwise go well beyond the mere recording of events in public places.
"I think this is a great tool -- it's wonderful what it's done already," said Ms. Miller, who lives in the part of Redwood City that has been wired for gunfire. "But if they wanted to, the police could slightly alter it to listen in to homes. That's where the Big Brother stuff comes in."
Indeed, the Redwood City police say they could, with minor adjustments, focus their sensors on conversation inside houses instead of merely picking up high-decibel gunfire in public areas.
And in Baltimore, officials acknowledge that they could just as easily tilt their video cameras to look inside windows rather than remain trained on the street.
The line between whiz-bang public-safety devices and unlawful intrusion is generally crossed when technology is used to go into a private space where there is no reason to presume that a crime is being committed, legal scholars say.
They point to a case in Wyoming, where the police used a thermal imager -- which can detect extra heat inside a home or any other building -- to arrest and convict two men on charges of growing marijuana under a bank of artificial light.
Last October the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that it was unconstitutional for the police to use an imager to scan homes without first obtaining search warrants. But other courts have held that using the imagers to detect abnormal heat does not violate Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The Supreme Court is likely to settle the thermal-imaging cases.
But a new round of cases is sure to arise as soon as acoustic sensors or video cameras are used outside of public spaces, legal experts say.
"It's pretty clear that Big Brother has arrived and he's looking into new areas to invade," said Randall Coyne, a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma who specializes in privacy issues. "You could argue that these cameras, these listening devices, in and of themselves constitute an illegal search. And perhaps more chilling, there is now this notion that you're never alone, you're never free."
Others say Americans have grown so accustomed to airport searches, video surveillance in malls and banks, and constantly operating recorders at cash machines and other devices that moving the big eye or ear to a more public space is not a major threat.
"It's not unlike the cameras in banks, supermarkets and subway systems that are already part of our daily lives -- and that make us feel safer," said Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore. He said he might expand Baltimore's system to other parts of the city if it proved a success during its trial run this year.
Police monitor the cameras inside an eight-by-eight-foot kiosk. Each camera keeps a record of a given area for up to four days. It will be used both to alert the police that a crime is occurring and to record an event, so that a record exists of what happened in a certain area.
"Monitoring is not the primary function -- it's the fact that everything is being recorded," said Russo. "So if someone reports a crime from 3 a.m. in a given area, we can go back and look at that." Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, compared the system to "a high-tech neighborhood watch program."
But Coyne said the price of this safety was loss of liberty. "It is just chilling to me that there is a permanent record being made of your every public action," he said.
In Redwood City, the acoustic sensors are welcomed in the neighborhood where they have been installed.
"I like it very much," said Eva Yang, who runs a small liquor store with her husband. "You know when someone shoots they can catch them real quick."
"It's a great idea -- long overdue," said Gregory Louis, a school bus driver.
The Redwood City police say they have had inquiries about their project from police departments around the world. They see themselves as technological pioneers, not glorified hall monitors.
"The great thing about this is, if somebody commits a crime we know almost instantly," said Capt. James R. Granucci. "We are almost literally catching them in the act, with a gun still smoking."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company