Aldermen respond to video surveillance

Big Brother is watching — or, at least, that is the concern of several members of the Board of Aldermen.

In response to a new surveillance camera program on Chapel Street, Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said he plans to hold a public hearing on the ensuing debate over the installation of the cameras as a crime deterrent. City officials, aldermen and community members have been divided on the subject of the since the New Haven Independent reported the installation of the two privately funded cameras Monday.

The cameras cost local members of the Chapel West private taxing district $50,000 to install on poles at the intersection between Chapel and Howe streets and the intersection between Chapel and Park streets. They were introduced in order to provide evidence in the apprehension of burglars and muggers, but signs warning of camera surveillance may also serve as a crime deterrent, Chapel West district General Manager Brian McGrath said.

“We hate criminals, and we’re sick of them,” McGrath said. “If this helps us catch criminals, than this will make us happy.”

But Goldfield said he found the cameras “sort of creepy” and planned to introduce a resolution at the next meeting of the Board of Aldermen in order to hold a public hearing for the community to discuss their views on the new surveillance system. Goldfield said he understood the reasons behind the installation of the cameras, but he said he feared that they could be utilized for unethical purposes that would invade the privacy of community members. He maintained that it is important to have a forum where community members can air their concerns over the new cameras.

“It doesn’t make me feel particularly comfortable,” Goldfield said. “To some degree, it’s probably paranoia, but to some degree I think the concerns are necessary. It’s a modern age technological dilemma.”

Kira Newman ’10, publicity director for the Yale ACLU, said the systems were open to abuse and did not necessarily work to prevent crime.

“Video surveillance has not been proven effective,” Newman said. “In some instances, it may even have a chilling effect on public life.”

The video cameras, which swivel 360 degrees and stream a live feed, have been operating at some capacity since the summer, Chapel West district President Vincent Romei said. The video is retrieved by the Yale Police Department and the city’s Traffic and Parking Department, which retain recordings for three weeks. (YPD officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.)

McGrath said the Chapel West district plans to install six more cameras in coming years. He said he hopes the city will provide support by displaying streaming video from the cameras on the city’s Web site and by funding the installation of additional cameras around the city.

Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts ’01 said though the city will likely hold a public forum in the future to discuss the camera program, but it would probably be too expensive for the city to participate in the near future, he said.

The surveillance camera program is reminiscent of Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s 2006 push for state legislation that would mandate traffic cameras to automatically ticket drivers speeding through red lights. Smuts said DeStefano still plans to bring this traffic camera program to New Haven, but the surveillance camera program is more expansive than the traffic camera program and would require further public debate.

“We’re not contemplating spending money on that at this point, but when we move forward with it, we’ll gauge public opinion,” Smuts said.

City aldermen differed in their opinions on the issue. Ward 7 Alderwoman Bitsie Clark said the cameras evoked images of a Ray Bradbury novel, and she insisted it would be “fascinating” to hear debate on the subject. Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen, the chair of the board’s Public Safety Committee, said he has no problems with the new cameras but is willing to participate in conversation about the measure.

Nick Singh, employee at the Chapel Mini Mart at 1182 Chapel St., agreed that the cameras were an excellent idea.

“It will definitely help,” he said. “People won’t rob if they know a camera is watching.”

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