Big Brother Watching? Downtown to Get More Cameras

Going downtown could soon virtually assure you an appearance on camera under a crime-fighting plan by Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt and central business district leaders. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, surveillance cameras will likely go up along the busiest parts of Main Street within the next three months.

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Under the plan, between four and six cameras would be mounted along Main Street and be monitored by Houston Police officers and civilian volunteers at a nearby storefront. The Downtown Management District would pay for the cameras and is already in the process of putting out requests for bids from companies that would provide the equipment. Police Chief Harold Hurtt says cameras are cheaper than more officers.

"Once you buy that equipment and put it in place and you have a maintenance contract, I would think it's going to be a lot less expensive than having officers standing in those locations or responding to all those calls."

The city is already in the process of installing red light cameras at busy downtown intersections and the Main Street cameras would add to what some consider an invasion of privacy and an unnecessary government intrusion. Hurtt says cameras are already a part of everyday life.

"If you just think about it, you go to a convenience store, you get gas, you go to the bank, you drive down the street in front of people's houses where motion sets off the cameras. You're already on camera. I know a lot of people are concerned about Big Brother, but my response to that is if you're not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?"

Although the Main Street entertainment area hasn't experienced a significant crime problem, Central Houston's Bob Eury says the cameras will simply be a proactive attempt to keep things safe.

"We really tend to be following a trend of a much higher level of usage. We saw it certainly in England and we're seeing it in the larger cities in America at this point in terms of, in a sense, supplementing our security officers so to speak with video. I guess at this point I would almost say that we're kind of late on the curve, at least we're in the middle of the curve. We're certainly not on the front of the curve in terms of usage of this technology."

South Texas College of Law Associate Professor Charles Rhodes says because Main street is a public area, people can't expect privacy there.

"The concern will of course be if they ever try to start taking the cameras and try to view what's happening in more private, secluded areas where you do have more of an expectation of privacy. But as long as the cameras stay on heavily-trafficked main areas of the town in which lots of people congregate, that's a reasonable method to try to decrease crime and to ensure individual safety."

Under the Chief's plan, other crime-ridden parts of the city could also eventually get surveillance cameras. He says he'd like to require new apartment projects and large shopping malls to include cameras as well.

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