The pros and cons of surveillance

Posted Jan. 14, 2011, at 6:38 p.m.

It was a few years ago when the first warning sign appeared on the door to the women’s locker room at the Bangor Y, and I stopped in my tracks for a moment when I saw it.

The sign stated that picture taking or video recording with a cell phone was prohibited in the locker room.

Before that it had never occurred to me to worry about such a thing.

What a difference a few years makes.

Today almost all of us are familiar with the lightning speed at which a cell phone user, i.e. everyone, can snap a photo or record a video and post it to the Internet.

Let me assure you, however, that the locker room at the Y still seems a pretty safe place to shed my unmentionables and perform the routine tasks that go on in there.

It’s become increasingly clear, though, that the number of places in any community where privacy is assured is shrinking.

Good or bad?

Last month the Portland City Council ordered that the owner of a bar on Portland Street install surveillance cameras as a condition of being granted his entertainment license.

Portland police did note problems in the neighborhood, but said those problems were not generally associated with the bar in question. The owner of the bar agreed to install four cameras that would provide footage from different vantage points around the building.

In Lewiston, police can monitor areas throughout the city.

Cameras posted in City Hall, Kennedy Park and pretty much the entire downtown feed directly into the police station, according to a report in the Lewiston Sun Journal.

The city has 68 cameras in Lewiston High School that feed directly into the Police Department’s desktop computers, according to the same story.

Good or bad?

In Chicago the city has dubbed its vast citywide surveillance system “Operation Virtual Shield.” The city has linked its own 1,500 cameras with thousands of others owned and operated by government agencies, private businesses, schools and even private homeowners — all feed into and are accessible by the Police Department there.

Bangor residents are not subject to that kind of monitoring, but Deputy Police Chief Peter Arno acknowledged this week that “you can’t walk very far in this city without being monitored on some type of video surveillance.”

The need for composite drawings has largely expired, for today the perpetrator is often caught on videotape, which within minutes can be downloaded onto a police computer and dispatched onto Facebook and sent to media outlets throughout the area.

The prosecution of two recent homicides in the city was bolstered by video surveillance.

Three separate cameras — one posted at the Bangor Police Department, one near Shaw’s grocery store and one at Hollywood Slots — provided evidence in the murder trial of Colin Koehler, who was convicted of murdering 19-year-old Holly Boutilier in the summer of 2009.

Surveillance video depicting a figure pushing a wheelbarrow carrying something wrapped in a blue tarp to the area where Christina Simonin’s body was found near First Street in Bangor in 2007 and evidence connecting that wheelbarrow to 61-year-old Ashton Moores convinced a judge of his guilt. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Routinely now, police are asking for the public’s help in identifying shoplifters or other miscreants caught on videotape.

Earlier this week, Penobscot County District Attorney Chris Almy took a seasoned shoplifter to trial for allegedly stealing from a convenience store in Medway. Almy thought the evidence against her was pretty solid.

There was a videotape of the alleged crime in which you could see the woman taking the items in question off the shelf and then turning her back to the camera, Almy said.

“But in this case the videotape turned out to be a double-edged sword because her back was to the camera and the video didn’t actually show her concealing the items, and the jury acquitted her because they didn’t actually see that,” Almy said.

During its deliberations, the jurors sent a note out to the trial judge asking whether they could see the videotape again with a “higher pixel count.”

“That was a first for me,” Almy said Friday.

It’s difficult to argue against video surveillance cameras when they aid in the arrest and prosecution of criminals. I certainly would not have minded having access to one the evening that my family’s vehicles were burglarized last summer.

One person noted to me this week: “I think people pretty much have an expectation today that the chances are pretty good that they are being monitored if they are in a public area. You can’t pick your nose just anywhere anymore.”

Good or bad?

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