Look up! There’s somebody watching

November 14, 2018

Yes, the notion of cameras tracking movements of people around town has the spectre of Big Brother about it. In a free society, even to be safe, citizens do not always want somebody watching us.

After all, we do not want to see Santa Fe become a miniature Great Britain, where authorities use closed-circuit television cameras to watch citizens and visitors alike in an unprecedented fashion. That’s not what is happening, though. Using cameras to keep an eye out at troublesome locations extends police protection when officers are busy elsewhere.

Surveillance is happening from a tower by the Cross of the Martyrs, an attraction for ne’er-do-wells and vandals over the years. The tower is attached to a 360-degree surveillance trailer run by the Santa Fe Police Department. Perhaps the eye from the sky will reduce graffiti, drug use and vandalism that taints what should be a sacred spot, a memorial to priests killed during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

It’s part of prevention. The department’s two Mobile Surveillance Units are dispatched to problem spots in the city, depending on the need.

For a time this fall, the unit was stationed at the DeVargas skate park — where two stabbings had occurred within a week in September. The units annoyed some regular park visitors, including skaters and the homeless, but did lead to less mess in parking lots and sidewalks around the area. That’s a welcome outcome.

Officers from the Criminal Intelligence Unit of the Santa Fe Police Department have been directing the cameras since around the spring of 2017. That’s just after the unit was formed.

The live streams feed into TV monitors at police headquarters, where cops can watch the footage as it happens or screen past shots to see what occurred within camera view.

For police, the cameras offer another set of eyes and ears. Increasing coverage for a force that is perennially short of officers is an important way to fight crime.

For business owners and residents, the cameras give a sense of security that the bad guys will be caught on video, if not captured in person, and eventually tracked down.

Most of all, the surveillance cameras are a tool to deter criminals — and from anecdotal experience, the arrival of the trailers means the departure of the bums.

Again, we would not want Santa Fe to go overboard. In Great Britain, the surveillance state is in full operation with an estimated 5.9 million closed-circuit television cameras running. For a Western democracy, the state of spying on citizens and others is unprecedented. This is no model for the United States.

Here in Santa Fe, it appears that police are using the cameras in smart, targeted ways. They are going to places that need reinforcement with a specific goal — keeping the community safe as opposed to keeping an eye on the community.

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