By DARRELL R. SANTSCHI
Police and public agencies across the Inland Empire are forging ahead with plans to start or expand the use of surveillance cameras despite mostly anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness against crime.
Those systems have become increasingly high-tech -- with high costs to match. Some are equipped with motion sensors and infrared night-vision gear to watch over the Inland Empire.
They stand guard over parks, schools, office buildings, shopping districts and even traffic intersections. They have been credited with spotting everything from burglars to after-hours ghost hunters.
Five years ago, Leverage Information Systems did not sell a single surveillance camera in Southern California, surveillance practice manager Ray Leblond said. Now police departments here are using 300 of its cameras.
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that public agencies have been too quick to install surveillance cameras on public streets and plazas without public debate and without an evaluation of their effectiveness.
An ACLU study completed last year of 37 California cities with surveillance systems and 10 cities considering expanding surveillance found no jurisdiction in the state had conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the cameras' effectiveness.
But proponents of the systems say it's not fair to judge the surveillance systems by the number of crooks they help capture.
"It's tough to tell how effective the cameras are because the biggest impact is as a deterrent," said Ted Rozzi, assistant superintendent, facilities, for the Corona-Norco Unified School District. "You don't know if it's the cameras. Whether you have the cameras or not, you can have a school that is not touched. For some reason, people don't pick on it."
While crime statistics before and after the cameras are not available, law enforcement agencies point to particular examples:
Redlands Police Department spokesman Carl Baker said vandalism at Redlands Municipal Airport totaled $88,000 the year before security cameras were installed there in 2002. Last year, the total was $100. Police were able to capture an airport burglar, Baker said, by tracking him down with the use of the airport camera and a store owner's video.
A surveillance camera at Yucaipa High School spotted a mountain lion roving the campus in 2004, prompting school officials to post warning signs.
The mysterious disappearance of gasoline cans from the Temecula Public Cemetery this past May was solved when a surveillance camera picked up the thief on video.
At University Heights Middle School in Riverside, surveillance-camera footage led to the arrest last year of a school employee on suspicion of stealing money from the school.
There have also been failures, including 30 vehicles vandalized at Norte Vista High School during a football game Oct. 17. Tires on teachers' cars have been slashed in parking lots despite the presence of cameras.
In some cases, cameras have been stolen or vandalized. Alvord Unified School District trustees are pondering spending as much as a half-million dollars to replace cameras recently stolen or damaged.
Loma Linda city officials, who have installed 45 cameras across the city at a cost of up to $5,000 apiece, group many of their outdoor cameras in pairs so they can keep watch on each other.
The Corona-Norco school district has installed surveillance cameras at three high schools in the past two years and is in the process of installing them at two other comprehensive high schools.
Student fights at Centennial High School in Corona prompted the installation of cameras there as an alternative to more-intrusive security measures, such as metal detectors.
"I don't know that cameras are better," Rozzi said. "You might have an argument from some people about whether that's the right way to go. That's what we chose."
Some agencies swear by the cameras.
Cameras monitored by Redlands police dispatchers also keep watch over Redlands High School, Baker said, and an elementary school that had been plagued by nighttime ghost hunters.
The city announced recently that it has been awarded a $467,650 federal grant to install 30 more cameras in its downtown shopping district.
"Cameras are a great deterrent," said Konrad Bolowich, Loma Linda's director of information technology. "They are also very useful in following up on crime."
When the city installed red-light cameras at four major intersections in town, he said, it also installed video cameras that monitor and record traffic 24 hours a day.
"These cameras capture every vehicle that runs through the intersection," Bolowich said. "If somebody robbed the bank here in town we could see every vehicle on the streets that go out of town. If you get a description (of the vehicle) you could see what direction they headed out of town and maybe get some faces in the vehicle and license plate numbers."
A security camera at the corporation yard captured images of vandals painting graffiti under a nearby railroad bridge. A clerk in the building noticed the vandals on a monitor and called sheriff's deputies, who nabbed them.
Grand Terrace installed 24-hour cameras in its two parks in 2006.
Colton, Corona, Loma Linda and Fontana also have surveillance cameras in public parks.
Solar-powered still cameras equipped with motion sensors keep watch for graffiti vandals in Highland.
Rialto Unified School District officials this summer credited video surveillance equipment, in part, with reducing graffiti vandalism on district campuses by 40 percent in the past year.
Karen Parris, spokeswoman for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District, said cameras have been installed at three high schools and three middle schools and the district is in the process of adding them at 11 elementary schools.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance last year cracking down on illegal dumping. County code enforcement officers use still and video cameras, some of which are equipped with night-vision technology, to catch dumpers.
In the 14 months since the cameras were installed, 27 illegal dumpers have been caught on tape and issued citations, according to Randy Rogers, deputy director of the county's Land Use Services Department's code enforcement division.
Corona police encourage businesses to tie their security cameras into a Web-linked surveillance system that allows police dispatchers to watch suspected burglars online even as officers drive to the scene.
Published: Monday, November 17, 2008