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Cambridge residents object to surveillance proposal

Cambridge officials will reconsider provisions in a proposed security camera policy that triggered complaints about privacy and a lack of police accountability from residents and civil liberty activists Thursday.

The policy proposed by Cambridge police would govern the way that six city surveillance cameras would be used, as well any other security cameras police wish to install in the future, to monitor traffic, deter crime or assist with identifying suspects.

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At a special hearing held at Cambridge City Hall, more than 50 residents and activists attended. Almost every person who spoke objected to using surveillance cameras or the proposed policy.

“I would urge the people of Cambridge to just take a step back and say no to going to a surveillance society,” said Carol Rose, the executive director of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union.

The proposal to start using government-controlled surveillance cameras comes four years after the council halted the activation of eight surveillance cameras out of concern about who would have access to the images, what they would be used for, and possible invasions of privacy.

Surveillance cameras have also drawn strong opposition in Brookline, where after much debate selectmen voted in 2009 to limit the use of the cameras to between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Brookline police are now seeking to have the hours limit lifted, but opponents have responded by proposing a resolution to Town Meeting that if approved this fall would call, for a second time, for the cameras to be removed.

In Cambridge, cameras have been installed for several years, but not turned on. Police are seeking to activate cameras on Rindge Avenue near the Alewife MBTA station, at 812 Memorial Drive, at Mount Auburn Hospital, and in Central, Inman and Porter squares.

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The proposal outlines the use of the cameras as well as any future cameras police could install, to monitor public places, including roads, and other critical infrastructure, traffic signalization, and cameras used to detect specific types of violations.

Only designated police officers who have an access code would be able to monitor cameras, and to do so they must first receive training that includes the ethical and legal issues involved with using video surveillance.

Police would review cameras’ operation annually, and the program would be subject to periodic audits by the force’s professional standards unit.

But residents and activists raised concerns that the pproposal needs to include a body outside of the police department to monitor the program.

Resident Skip Schiel said surveillance cameras can generate a feeling of fear.

“Who watches the watchers?” he asked.

Residents also voiced concerns that the policy would not require the council’s approval for the future installation of updated technology in the cameras, and the proposal doesn’t specify how many cameras the force wishes to use.

Councilor Marjorie Decker said she’s not supportive of the policy the way it’s written and she worries the cameras would have a chilling effect.

“I still don’t believe we need this,” Decker said.

Police Commissioner Robert Haas said he sees cameras as a tool that can be used in limited ways.

Haas said there is no plan to put cameras elsewhere in the city.

City Manager Richard Rossi said it is up to police, not the council, to decide on the policy. Rossi said the city will review the suggestions made to alter the proposal and will report back to the council at a later date.

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @BrockParker2.

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