Target Corp. is donating $100,000 for police surveillance cameras at George Washington, Kennedy and North high schools. Police already have installed cameras at East, Lincoln, Manual and Montbello high schools, and they monitor video feeds from a separate Denver Public Schools system.
Recent federal grants will allow police to put up cameras at areas viewed as potential terrorism targets, including Cherry Creek mall.
In all, police plan to add 33 video cameras this summer to the arsenal of 80. Some of the existing cameras may be moved to other locations after a review of the system.
Mel Thompson, Denver's deputy safety manager, called the police's High Activity Location Observation program — or HALO — a "force multiplier."
"We would like to put a cop at every corner. But in reality, who can put a cop at every corner?" said Lt. Ernie Martinez, who runs the program. "What we can do is use technology to leverage our assets and help out our officers."
The system worries civil-liberties groups.
"Monitoring public spaces through real-time video surveillance erodes privacy, inhibits freedom and chills expression in public spaces, with little or no benefit in reduced criminal activity," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
Silverstein said that although Fourth Amendment case law has established that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public places,"nevertheless, everyone understands that there is something terribly invasive and creepy about police officers constantly watching us with high-powered, sophisticated cameras."
Drawbacks vs. benefits
There have been instances where police cameras have been used inappropriately.
In Tuscaloosa, Ala., state police were accused of focusing a camera meant to monitor an intersection on the breasts and buttocks of women walking down the street. In 2004, a graphic police-camera video of a gunshot suicide in New York wound up on a pornographic website.
Martinez said precautions have been taken to prevent similar misuses of the cameras from occurring in Denver.
Recent studies are mixed on the effectiveness of video police work.
Last year, University of California researchers released a report that found San Francisco authorities oversold the benefits of video surveillance in crime fighting. Prosecutors in Baltimore also have said police there hype video cameras as a law enforcement tool when the cameras rarely lead to convictions.
But the Urban Institute of Washington found crime declined in Baltimore after video cameras were installed.
Denver Councilman Doug Linkhart said that although he believes the camera program makes sense, he thinks a defense attorney should be added to a monitoring committee to ensure civil-liberties concerns are aired.
"The cameras work"
Denver council members, for the most part, praise the program. Video from a police camera helped in the successful prosecution of gang members who burned down the Holly Square Shopping Center. The video showed that one of the Molotov cocktails rolled off the shopping center's roof and hit the head of the person who threw it, causing his head to catch fire.
In another instance, police video captured Shannon Stark when he fired a revolver at a Denver police officer after the officer ran a check on him. Stark, now 21, confessed to the shooting after police confronted him with video that showed the police officer ducking to avoid the bullet. Stark now is serving a 16-year prison sentence.
Martinez said the cameras can have other uses beyond crime prevention. In the event of a disaster or terrorism attack, they also can help authorities coordinate evacuation routes and the dispensing of medicine, Martinez said.
"The cameras work," Councilman Charlie Brown said during a recent briefing. "I welcome them, and so do the neighbors."
Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz said during a recent council briefing that a constituent had contacted her and asked for more video surveillance at a public building.
Martinez said the purchase and installation of the cameras have all been done through federal grants and private funding. For example, federal funds for the 2008 Democratic National Convention paid for 50 cameras.
Urban use on rise
Other cities now are looking to Denver. Authorities from Austin, Texas, recently visited to see how the video crime- fighting program works here.
While grants and private donations pay for the hardware and installation, tax dollars cover the salaries of Martinez, two police detectives, a cadet and civilian employees trained and certified in monitoring protocol.
The work at the monitoring center in downtown police headquarters is supplemented by a stream of police dispatch reports and crime data.
The use of security cameras by police is on the upswing in urban areas nationwide. Baltimore, with 400 cameras in use, and Chicago, with 2,250, are considered leaders. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has said he wants to have a surveillance camera on every corner in the city by 2016.
In 2001, face-recognition software scanned people at the Super Bowl, checking to see whether those entering the turnstiles were criminals.
"Definite need" at sites
In Denver, that type of software won't be put to use, Martinez said. Denver's system also doesn't have the sophisticated software used in Chicago that can identify the sound of gunfire and focus cameras in the direction of the shots.
But Denver's cameras have resolution high enough to zoom in and capture an image of something as small as a license plate as far as a block and a half away.
The Denver program is monitored by an oversight committee made up of senior police managers, a community representative, the director of the Police Department's crime analysis unit, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey's office and the city attorney's office, Martinez said.
When police decide cameras should be moved or new ones should be installed, the committee reviews the sites, he said.
"Everywhere we have a camera, we have a definite need," Martinez said, stressing that neighborhood-group leaders have embraced the technology so much that they don't want to see them relocated once they are installed.