New Minneapolis cameras make thugs go elsewhere

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 26, 2011 - 2:27 PM

Minneapolis residents and police say the mobile units can help deal with problem spots.

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A temporary surveillance camera was set up Sept. 13 at the corner of 34th Street and Oliver Avenue N. in Minneapolis. Placing such cameras on public streets is legal, and residents generally welcomed their conspicuous presence, which they say noticeably intimidates the riff-raff.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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The toughs who hang out at "Amen Corner," a notorious spot near Peavey Park in south Minneapolis, are difficult to intimidate, but when a portable Minneapolis police surveillance camera shows up, they melt away.

Imposing as they are effective, a new breed of portable video cameras has popped up in Minneapolis streets and parks. The eight mobile camera units find fans in people like Robert Albee, who as chairman of the Ventura Village neighborhood association has fought to clean up Peavey Park.

"The nefarious sorts who want to do their business anonymously are not too thrilled with them," Albee said.

Amid a wave of new technologies showing up in police stations nationwide, the mobile cameras augment increasingly sophisticated video monitoring, a trend that has helped cut crime rates from Baltimore to Chicago, according to a new report from the Urban Institute. The cameras have drawn complaints from some over privacy concerns, but many in crime-ridden neighborhoods welcome the surveillance.

The new mobile cameras in Minneapolis are mounted on a 30-foot pole that rises from a generator the size of a basement freezer. The whole thing sits on a two-wheeled trailer that the police department pulls around town. Some of the cameras come with powerful lights for illuminating parks or shadowy streets.

"It's not as though we're trying to be covert here," said Lt. Jeff Rugel, who works in the department's Strategic Information Center (SIC), where the city's surveillance network is watched.

The Mobile-Pro brand portable video rigs are connected by Wi-Fi to the city's network. It usually takes less than an hour to deploy one and start sending live feeds, he said. Officers sitting in the SIC watch the video and communicate to street patrols by radio or through the police department computer network, telling street officers what's happening in the moments before they arrive.

The cameras augment the city's existing network of fixed surveillance cameras, which tend to be placed along commercial areas and high-traffic streets.

"They're awesome," said Rugel, who keeps a board in his office that lists the locations of each of the portable cameras. Rugel said the city has had at least one unit since the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in 2007, but had purchased six more this spring. They cost about $29,000 apiece, according to city records.

The portable cameras, more than the fixed ones, seem to make criminals take notice, he said.

"They behave similar to the way they behave if they saw a cop standing on the corner," he said.

The combination of video and lights disperses unruly crowds quickly, he said. That helped during the University of Minnesota's Spring Jam, and the cameras have been used at everything from the Uptown Art Fair to the Basilica Block Party and a festival at the LynLake neighborhood this summer, he said.

Erecting them on city streets and recording public places is not against the law, and does not require the department to give the public any notice that they're being captured on video. If someone does something suspicious on camera, the police can use that information as probable cause to stop them. After the fact, the cameras can serve up powerful video evidence of a crime.

Still, they're not a magic bullet, said Third Precinct Inspector Lucy Gerold.

"A camera won't solve every problem," she said. "You have to identify the problem that you're trying to solve and then look at the range of options that might solve that problem. One of them might be cameras."

Gerold recently launched a campaign to clean up Peavey Park, after a rash of violent crime in the park off Franklin and Chicago Avenues. Setting up a portable camera was part of the strategy, along with monitoring problem properties, talking to the neighborhood association, holding a public meeting, planning more events for the park, among other steps.

They're most useful when the police are dealing with large crowds, she said. The camera's lights can also prevent crime by taking away the shadows and hiding places a criminal might use, she said.

Residents have generally welcomed the mobile surveillance.

"I'm comfortable with surveillance cameras," said Brian Bushay, the president of the Old Highland Neighborhood Association on the city's North Side. "I don't think people need to be doing something that they don't want to be seen on camera in public places anyway."

His concerns about the cameras have to do with the staffing levels at the police department, whether anyone's watching all of those video feeds.

"I would like to see them get into the neighborhoods a little better, particularly at the bus stops," he said.

The camera's imposing presence might scare away riff-raff, but it also invites questions for someone like Brigid Volk, a transit rider who recently found herself wondering why her bus stop had a portable camera parked nearby.

She supports the idea of video surveillance of public places, but she wondered whether the camera's arrival meant the corner wasn't safe.

"I was a little unnerved by it," Volk said.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747

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