The Little Rock Police Department unveiled a new $500,000 network of 53 surveillance cameras and an attendant monitoring station last Thursday, saying the cameras — which were installed between May and August — have already helped police catch criminals and reduce incidents in high-crime areas.
An attorney with ACLU of Arkansas, however, fears the cameras put Arkansans at risk of invasion of privacy and abuse.
The cameras, most of which are mounted on power poles at the height where TV cables are attached, can watch and record activity in real time, and feature a flashing blue light, prominent POLICE stickers, and a machined aluminum housing that officials said could survive a shotgun blast. They are equipped with lenses that can zoom in tight enough to read the numbers on license plates. Officials said the cameras record 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the recorded footage archived for up to 10 days under a temporary directive put in place while a more permanent directive for how to use the cameras and keep footage is being drafted. Under current policy, after 10 days, the footage is deleted, though the archive is really only limited by server space, a spokesman said.
Lt. Casey Clark with the LRPD said that 20 of the cameras are deployed in the River Market, where the department wanted a “bigger footprint” due to heavy pedestrian traffic. The rest are divided among the city’s patrol divisions. The cameras in other parts of the city, Clark said, are deployed in response to crime trends. Twenty of the cameras, Clark said, feature an audible warning that loudly repeats “Warning: This area is under video surveillance and is being monitored by the Little Rock Police Department” in both English and Spanish.
The monitoring station for the cameras is located in a small, TV-filled room at the LRPD’s Northwest Patrol Division substation at 10001 Kanis Road, near Baptist Hospital. During the unveiling for the press on Nov. 21, screens inside the monitoring station showed the east ramp of the Big Dam Bridge, the pumps at a Shell gas station, and an apartment complex on Green Mountain Drive, among over a dozen other views. In the footage of the apartment complex, the windows of some of the apartments could be seen, though Clark said that all the cameras are placed on public property.
Clark demonstrated the zoom function on one of the cameras, showing how it could close in on a street sign a hundred yards from the camera so that letters on the sign could be read. He said the cameras have already helped solve at least 10 auto break-in cases. In another case, Clark said, footage helped apprehend two suspects who dumped a body within view of one of the cameras. In the River Market, Clark said, auto break-ins and panhandling have decreased dramatically since the cameras were installed, adding that the placement of the cameras can “push” crime away from high-crime areas. If a crime is reported in the vicinity of one of the cameras, Clark said, live footage can be fed to a responding officer in real time.
The video shot by the cameras is subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, which means that as long as the footage is not part of an ongoing criminal investigation, it is a public record that can be requested and obtained by anyone. For example, Clark agreed in response to a question, if a divorce attorney had reason to believe their client’s spouse had a tryst at the Big Dam Bridge, that footage would be available to the attorney if it hadn’t been longer than 10 days since the incident. Clark said that while he can’t promise the cameras are being monitored 24/7, they are being recorded 24/7.
Asked if 53 cameras are enough to cover the city, Clark said, “We could have 253 and it probably wouldn’t be enough. Every mini-mart you go in, every retail store has cameras. The biggest point we’re trying to do with the cameras is, we’re trying to gather more information to solve crimes. That’s it. We want to deter crime, and we want to solve crime. So, really, I couldn’t give you a number. Wherever there’s a public area, wherever there’s a chance that some criminal act could occur, I think that’d be a great location for a camera.”
Holly Dickson, legal director for the ACLU of Arkansas, has concerns about the expansion of video surveillance in the city. She said that while the LRPD has revealed some of the camera locations, all of them aren’t known yet, which makes the ability to FOI footage from them essentially meaningless. She said that putting flashing lights, stickers and audible warnings on the cameras to make them more visible is a good thing, along with the short, 10-day retention period, but she believes that police surveillance cameras in general invite overzealous policing that may invade the privacy of those who’ve committed no crime.
“Technology such as this turns police officers into supermen and women with powers of observation far beyond what can be seen by the naked eye,” Dickson said. “An operator may zoom in from long distances to read and record print on flyers distributed on sidewalks, titles of books people are reading, or identify the persons to whom we are talking.”
In addition to police concerns, Dickson said that, taken out of context, footage from the cameras might be used to embarrass a private citizen or political figure out innocently walking with someone other than his or her spouse. Police surveillance cameras, she said, are “another in a long line of examples of technology getting ahead of the law.”
Dickson said that rather than spending funds on cameras, Little Rock would do better to invest the money elsewhere, hiring officers and supporting efforts that engage the community.
“Police are supposed to act when they have an ‘individualized suspicion’ in this country,” Dickson said, “not cast out wide nets to collect vast amounts of information about citizens on the chance that they will catch wrongdoing.”