Big Brother moving to Mid-Town?

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116664236526290.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘A surrveillance camera looms above Seventh Street.’);

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.”—George Orwell, 1984

Beginning in January, if you’re on Seventh Street for any reason, you will be under the watchful eyes of a $30,000 surveillance system purchased by Mid-Town District Association business owners.

Bill Mohr, president of the association, said the three-camera system will be spread along Seventh Street’s business district. The only camera currently in place is mounted above the street in front of Guler Appliance. Mohr assured the other two cameras would be in place along Seventh Street shortly.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Mohr. “We think it will be something very useful and a way of expanding the Rockford Police Department’s ability to finish off cleaning up the area.”

The system, however, is not intended to stop a crime in the act, but merely record it. Mohr hopes the cameras will serve as deterrents.

“Surveillance systems aren’t really, generally speaking, monitored on a 24-hour basis,” Mohr explained. “If you have an event that takes place and you want to see if that has been captured by one of the cameras, then you just dial it up.”

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Howard Crosby of Crosby Tax Service on Seventh Street.

“I should not think so,” Crosby answered when asked if his clients might have privacy concerns. “They should be happy. It’s for everybody’s good.”

The district lies within Ald. Jeff Holt’s (D) 11th Ward. Asked for comment, Holt said he’d only just learned of the cameras from a newspaper article.

“I am not aware of that project,” Holt said. “No one from Mid-Town District has informed me of what they’re doing, who it’s in conjunction with.”

Police officers will be able to access the system wirelessly via laptops in their squad cars, where they can review footage as well as assume control of the cameras, each of which has a 360-degree range. The recording system is housed within the Mid-Town District offices, which Mohr said will have a work station for police.

He told The Rock River Times Editor & Publisher Frank Schier: “The system at Patriots’ Gateway has come in very handy, with people breaking into the place. Basically, it’s a business enhancement that acts as a deterrent to things that might happen.

“Take, for example, AMCORE has an extensive system to cover the bank and the parking area. They’re expanding their system. They’re part of this whole activity, and we keep them apprised of our activity and they keep us apprised of theirs.

“Another example is a guy got conked in the head in front of the Phoenix Trader area, after he left the tobacco store. It would have been handy to have a tape of that,” Mohr said.

Although Mohr says he’s received no resistance to the plan, not everyone is excited about cameras in Mid-Town.

“I don’t think bringing cameras down here is going to attract business,” said Jim Phelps, who owns Phoenix Traders on Seventh Street. “I think it’s going to do just the opposite.”

Phelps said the area has been steadily improving over the last several years, without the benefit of surveillance cameras.

In an Oct. 3, 2006 article, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman seemed to share Phelps’ sentiment that cameras don’t make for an inviting atmosphere.

“The $30,000 cameras virtually announced that you were entering a high-crime neighborhood,” Spielman said of Chicago’s Operation Disruption surveillance system.

Phelps suggested Mid-Town would be better served by a marketing campaign, such as the River District has done.

“I really, truly, believe that once you open up the businesses in these storefronts, and the stores are here ’til 8 or 9 o’clock at night, a lot of the problems are gonna disappear,” Phelps suggested. “Because the business owners are gonna police the problems.”

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D) hopes to have a security camera on every corner of his city by 2016. Chicago already has 200 cameras in place, with another 100 on the way in 2007.

Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) said, “I’ve had a chance to see the Chicago surveillance center. I’m a big believer that cameras can be a component, not the end-all of an effective crime strategy.”

Because the cameras in Rockford are to serve as crime deterrents, not crime stoppers, some question where the crime will go.

“It’s gonna keep moving down here,” explained John Young, who lives three blocks east. “I’ve seen it happen ever since they started pushing it off Seventh.”

“We’ll just chase the crime,” Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson responded, citing continuing police initiatives in the Broadway and Seventh Street area. “You’re sending out a huge message by deploying those resources in those areas.”

Epperson vowed to break the “norm” that activities such as prostitution and drug use in the area are acceptable.

“If you deter crime in one location,” Mohr acknowledged, “that forces it to move to another location. That’s very possible.”

Young said the Seventh Street business district shouldn’t be emptying its proverbial dustpan into nearby residential areas.

Because the cameras can be remotely accessed and controlled, there is an inherent potential for misuse. Mohr, however, assured that “screens” built into the software program will prevent the cameras from seeing into residential windows.

Asked about oversight, Epperson promised, “We wouldn’t partner with anyone that’s not gonna follow the Constitution.”

The chief added an intergovernmental agreement with Rockford schools, which have cameras, could be coming soon.

In addition, the cameras are capable of seeing in the dark.

Legal scholar Marcus Nieto has stated, “If a video camera monitored by police has an infrared filtering device with the capabilities to view activities that a reasonable person might expect to not be visible from public view, Fourth Amendment concerns might arise.”

Dec. 14, The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reported a proliferation of surveillance cameras.

“Cameras are popping up on building facades, storefronts and light poles,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman noted. “To the untrained eye, these cameras are often hard to see. But their presence has significant implications for the rights of privacy, speech and association.”

“In order to prevent abuses that could endanger individual liberties, video surveillance systems must possess layers of protection,” said Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Thomas J. Nestel, who spoke at the NYCLU news conference. “Written guidelines, training, adequate supervision, registration processes, image release policies and legislative penalties for misuse should serve as the minimum standard for operation.”

“If a private business wishes, on its own property, to record,” Phelps said, “I think that’s totally legal. But once you put a camera above public property, that becomes a government domain issue.”

“Anything the city can do to make this a more desirable area is fine with me,” said attorney Francis Martinez, who practices on Seventh Street. “I don’t have any Big Brother issues.”

Martinez, who is originally from Chicago, has seen positive results from the use of cameras in that city. Martinez also said clients needn’t have privacy concerns.

“I’m more concerned with raising the level of safety,” Martinez said. “And it has been improving.”

Phelps said, “I guess my problem with this is not from a civil libertarian aspect per se. It’s: What is the function of the Mid-Town District and why? And what kind of powers do we want to give non-governmental organizations in this town?”

To anyone who’s read George Orwell’s 1984, a feeling of “security” resulting from cameras on street corners could be a hard sell.

In a Nov. 30, 2006, article in

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