How much do we want to be watched? With the city putting out a request for proposals for video surveillance cameras on the Downtown Mall and working on red-light cameras at intersections, the question of how far Charlottesville is willing to go in the name of public safety grows larger. We’re watched everyday, at ATMs, private businesses or as we walk by the carousel on the Downtown Mall. The police department is also watching us, though few know about it.
The carousel on the Downtown Mall is just one of the places in the city watched by video surveillance. On Wertland Street, property owners are working with police to install cameras.
Police Chief Tim Longo confirms that his department installs cameras on private businesses and residences that, depending on the circumstance, could be actively or retroactively monitored as a part of specific investigations. "We’ve always used video as part of investigations," Longo says. In some cases, police will approach owners for permission to install cameras on their buildings.
According to Longo, as long as both the camera’s location and field of vision is contained on that property, and police have the owner’s permission, judicial approval is not necessary. "We’ve always acted within the Fourth Amendment," he says.
But getting permission from owners doesn’t seem to be a major obstacle. Rick Jones of Management Services Corporation, a major student landlord, says he has let police use vacant apartments for surveillance and that he’s glad to do it. He describes the relationship between owners he knows and police as a good one, and that he supports the case-specific video surveillance. "That’s their job," he says. "It’s a tool."
Because the cameras are connected to ongoing investigations, their locations are confidential, as is data on frequency of use. Longo does say that the decision to install a camera during an investigation is specific to each case.
Longo says it’s a two-way relationship, citing times that owners have asked police to install a camera on their building. Wade Tremblay, general manager of Wade Apartments, says he and other property owners contacted the police about installing cameras on their properties on Wertland Street, in the heart of student housing. While he says they’re still discussing who would purchase and monitor the cameras, Tremblay says the police have "bent over backwards" being helpful.
Private or public, cameras play into the larger question: How much surveillance are citizens willing to accept? With possible cameras at red lights and above the Mall on the horizon, it’s a question that, like it or not, is quickly being decided.
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