Police, politicians push for increased video surveillance

LOS ANGELES — Police and politicians across the nation are pointing to the example of surveillance video that was used to help identify the Boston Marathon bombing suspects as a reason to get more electronic eyes on their streets.

From Los Angeles to Philadelphia, efforts include trying to gain police access to cameras used to monitor traffic, expanding surveillance networks in some major cities, and enabling officers to get regular access to security footage at businesses.

Some in law enforcement, however, acknowledge that their plans may face an age-old obstacle: Americans’ traditional reluctance to give the government more law enforcement powers out of fear that they will live in a society where there is little privacy.


‘‘Look, we don’t want an occupied state. We want to be able to walk the good balance between freedom and security,’’ said Los Angeles police Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who heads the department’s counterterrorism and special operations bureau.

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‘‘If this helps prevent, deter, but also detect and create clues to who did [a crime], I guess the question is can the American public tolerate that type of security,’’ he said.

The proliferation of cameras — both on street corners and on millions of smartphones — has helped catch lawbreakers, but plans to expand surveillance networks could run up against the millions of dollars it can cost to install and run the networks, experts say.

Whatever Americans’ attitudes or the costs, experts say, the use of cameras is likely to increase in the coming years, whether they are part of an always-on, government-run network or a disparate, disorganized web of citizens’ smartphones and business security systems.

‘‘One of the lessons coming out of Boston is it’s not just going to be cameras operated by the city, but it’s going to be cameras that are in businesses, cameras that citizens use,’’ said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. ‘‘You’ll see the use of cameras will skyrocket.’’


Part of the push among law enforcement agencies is for greater integration of surveillance systems. For decades, law enforcement has contacted businesses for video after a crime. An integrated network would make that easier, advocates say.

Since the Boston bombings, police officials have been making the case for such a network.

In Philadelphia, the police commissioner appealed last week to business owners with cameras in public spaces to register them with the department. In Chicago, the mayor wants to expand the city’s already robust network of roughly 22,000 surveillance cameras.

And in Houston, officials want to add to their 450 cameras through more public and private partnerships. The city already has access to hundreds of additional cameras that monitor the water system, the rail system, freeways, and public spaces such as Reliant Stadium, officials said.

‘‘If they have a camera that films an area we’re interested in, then why put up a separate camera?’’ said Dennis Storemski, director of the mayor’s office of public safety and homeland security. ‘‘And we allow them to use ours, too.’’


In Los Angeles, police have been working on building up a regional video camera system funded by about $10 million in federal grant dollars over the last several years that would allow their network to be shared with nearby cities at the flip of a switch, Downing said.

‘The question is can the American public tolerate that type of security.’’

That effort is in addition to a recent request by an LA councilman who wants the city to examine allowing police access to cameras used to monitor traffic flow. If that happens, the LAPD’s network of about 700 cameras would grow to more than 1,000.

‘‘First, it’s a deterrent and, second, it’s evidence,’’ Downing said, adding, ‘‘it helps us in the hunt and pursuit.’’