Ramsey County invites citizens to watch for crime -- on the Web

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2010 - 11:52 PM

The Sheriff's Office has its electronic eyes on "hot spots" in the county. Of 30 cameras, 10 will be viewable at a new website in a virtual neighboorhood watch.

The Ramsey County Sheriff's Office launched a website Tuesday that will let people watch real-time camera footage of various public areas countywide.

It's a digital block club in a sense, dubbed "Neighborhood eWatch," with citizens encouraged to call authorities if they spot suspicious activity. Sheriff's employees in a St. Paul control room can zoom in on the situation and dispatch deputies as needed.

The county already has cameras in parks and other areas, but they aren't watched constantly. In a time of tight budgets, Sheriff Bob Fletcher said, letting the public view the pictures puts more eyes on alert and will help authorities do their jobs.

"We have to use technology to our advantage," he said. "Surveillance cameras are nothing new, but they're not really very valuable if you don't have people watching them."

Critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, have raised concerns about citizens' loss of privacy and question the effectiveness of camera surveillance in deterring and solving crimes.

People do not have to register to view the website, so the Sheriff's Office won't know exactly who is watching.

Fletcher said he thinks most people are accustomed to being under surveillance in private businesses and would welcome others watching out for them via camera.

The county last year set aside $40,000 for the website and cameras.

There are 30 cameras in total, but only 10 are being made viewable by the public. The public cameras, which will be moved from time to time, will be placed in areas such as the impound lot, county park and ice arena parking lots, busy intersections and in a squad car. Fletcher said the cameras will be placed only in "hot spots," meaning areas that have had frequent vehicle break-ins, thefts and assaults.

"These suspects that break into these cars are doing two or three a week," Fletcher said.

The wireless camera units are portable and can be controlled from the East Metro Real-Time Information Center, a room in Sheriff's Office headquarters in St. Paul.

Footage will be recorded and kept for at least seven days.

He predicted that this technology will be commonplace in law enforcement and emergency services in five years.

Visitors to the website also will find current arrest records, reports of serious crimes around the county and mugshots of the county's most-wanted suspects. There's information on how the department is organized, news items and behind-the-scenes videos.

The website is www.ramseycountysheriffwebcop.com.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148

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