EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 26, 2013

Surveillance cameras have fans, detractors

Public safety officials love them, ACLU not as much

By Alex Lippa
alippa@eagletribune.com

---- — Surveillance cameras are everywhere — in public parks, on traffic lights, trained on store counters.

Police love them, retailers rely on them, but not everyone thinks being under constant surveillance is a good thing.

The FBI used a combination of public and private surveillance video to identify the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

Derry police identified the getaway car used in a string of holdups to track down the suspect.

In Lawrence, police released video tape of a crime scene and used it to prosecute a man for first-degree murder.

But Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union, said too much surveillance isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“There appears to be very little evidence in that they are effective in actually preventing the crimes,” Chaffee said. “The problem I have is when it comes to tracking people with surveillance. We have strong laws here in New Hampshire which protect people from unwanted surveillance.”

When several Southern New Hampshire convenience stores and restaurants were robbed recently, police Chief Edward Garone knew right where to turn: the video tape.

“It’s always one of the first things we look for when a crime has been committed,” Garone said.

In Derry, police routinely use both public and private video footage.

“I’m a big advocate of using this equipment,” Garone said. “People tend to not do awful acts when they are fearful of being watched. We have about a dozen town-owned cameras set up around town in various places.”

Alexander Carr Park, Hood Park and the Derry Municipal Center are some of the places with surveillance cameras. But they’re primarily there to prevent crimes rather than solve them.

“We have some limited crime recorded on them, but the purpose is for everyone to know they are there,” Garone said.

Lawrence police also have been using surveillance video effectively.

“There are tons of them out there. Every time we go to a crime scene, cameras are one of the first things we are looking for. ... It’s been a real major breakthrough for us,” Lawrence police Chief John Romero said. “The cameras have been influential for us solving a number of cases, even murder.”

Romero pointed to the recent conviction in a first-degree murder case.

Timothy Walker was fatally shot while he sat on his grandmother’s porch. Ten months later, with no arrest yet in the case, detectives released surveillance video of the scene. The tape was used in the suspect’s murder trial — and he was convicted.

In Haverhill, Mayor James Fiorentini wants to add more surveillance cameras to the 16 now installed throughout the city. This week, the City Council agreed.

But some towns don’t have any public cameras.

In Salem, the only cameras they have are ones which take still images at certain intersections. Atkinson police also don’t use public cameras, but both departments use private cameras to help with police work.

“We know there are cameras with certain residents,” acting Atkinson police Chief Patrick Caggiano said. “In one area, there is a camera which captures a resident’s house, but also captures an area where we have several accidents. We can use the cameras to piece back what happened.”

Salem Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten said the town tries to work with businesses when it comes to installing the security.

“If they ask, we will give them advice,” Patten said. “But many of them use alarm professionals.”

Virginia Greer, the owner of Windham Jewelers in East Hampstead, has nine cameras set up in her business. She said they have become crucial when it comes to security.

“I’ve had them here for 26 years,” Greer said. “Now, I’m able to watch every area from my cell phone. We even put them in the bathroom.”

Throughout the years, surveillance techniques have become more advanced.

Private investigator Ed Spicer said you can buy a good surveillance system at BJ’s Wholesale Club for $300.

“It depends on what you want to do. Some systems allow you to watch the video from your Smartphone or computer while you aren’t there,” said Spicer, co-owner of Ocean State Investigative Group and New England Private Investigation Equipment.

Spicer, who has worked many cases in the Merrimack Valley, said when in doubt, assume a camera is there and rolling.

“With today’s technology, anybody and everybody has a camera,” Spicer said. “Anywhere you go, from hotels to parking garages, elevators, homes there are cameras.”

Some people feel safer knowing cameras are always watching, but some find it invasive.

“When we’re talking about surveillance tools, you’re talking about basic right to privacy,” said Chaffee of the NH-ACLU. “Government shouldn’t be spying on its own citizens for no reason. This is a concern in New Hampshire, and I think people in New Hampshire care about their privacy.”

For some, it depends on the location. Philip Grigas of Derry, who was shopping at Cumberland Farms in Derry yesterday, had mixed feelings about surveillance cameras.

“I think with stores, it helps make things safer,” he said. “But I don’t think it needs to be in parks. It’s a bit of an invasion of privacy. You just don’t want to feel like you’re being watched over all the time.

But Danielle Norton, 28, of Derry doesn’t mind having cameras watching as she plays with her kids at Alexander Carr Park in Derry.

“It makes me feel safer,” Norton said. “If I was out with my kids and the playground was packed, or if I was at a shopping center, I’d definitely want them there.”

Chaffee agreed with the mixed reviews.

“It depends on where and how these surveillance devices are being used,” Chaffee said. “In certain places, where they have high profile spaces, there’s no expectation of privacy. It very well may be justifiable in that type of situation.”

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Staff writer Jill Harmacinski contributed to this report.