Crime-Plagued City Turns to Big Brother

More than 160 cameras keep constant vigil over Lancaster, Pa., which had the 9th highest rate of violent crime in 2008. Is it a solid law enforcement tool or a violation of privacy?
CBS
Despite its tranquil Dutch country image, Lancaster, Pa., has a crime problem. Among cities its size, Lancaster had the 9th highest rate of violent crime in 2008. So the city took a dramatic step.

More than 160 cameras keep constant vigil on just four square miles, more than in major cities like Boston or San Francisco, reports CBS News technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg.

"If somebody is monitoring a camera and they see some suspicious activity, we're notified immediately through 911," Chief Keith Sadler, of the Lancaster Police Department, said.

Here's how it works: A handful of paid workers monitor the cameras 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can zoom and scan with a joystick.

Suspicious activity is reported to 911 - a live video feed can go right to police dispatch. Cameras have captured crimes like an illegal gun sale, DUI accidents or an assault on an elderly pedestrian, caught on film being accosted and knocked down by a gang of teens.

Two years ago, the cameras helped catch the killer who shot 19-year-old Tyquan Brown to death as an argument turned violent.

"It allowed the jury to be able to actually identify everything that happened that night," Freda Brown, the victim's mother, said.

For some people, the proliferation of cameras is troubling enough. But they also worry that private citizens, and not trained law enforcement officers, are controlling and viewing the images. So they want to know - who's watching the watchers?

The camera near Charlie Crystle's house can see him walking down the street or chatting on his front porch. At a recent protest against the cameras, under those eyes in the sky, he complained about potential abuse.

"It's a private organization, partially funded by the city, funded a lot by private individuals, some of whom have personal and political agendas as well," he said.

Joe Morales heads the $3 million security coalition that operates the cameras.

"We understand how serious this is, the very serious nature of the work we're doing. And we know that it wouldn't take very much to damage the trust and integrity we've earned up to this point," Morales said.

However, in the program's seven years, the crime rate has generally held steady, but not declined. Even though the cameras did not prevent the murder of Freda Brown's son, she is convinced the cameras brought his killer to justice.

"If it wouldn't have been for them, I wouldn't have closure today," Brown said.

As the debate here continues - an un-American infringement on the right to privacy or a 21st century law enforcement tool - at least four cities around the country are considering implementing the "Lancaster experiment."