By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The next time you eat lunch in Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square or ride a bike along the Prince Memorial Greenway, don’t forget to smile — you may be on camera.
Santa Rosa is installing five new surveillance cameras downtown as part of an effort to protect the nation’s “critical infrastructure” and improve public safety.
But officials are being tight-lipped on just what they are trying to protect downtown, citing a need for secrecy not often cited by local officials — national security.
“What I definitely cannot talk about is what sort of critical infrastructure is being protected by this grant,” said Lt. Craig Schwartz.
The city in 2008 won a $193,000 grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Buffer Zone Protection Program. The program is designed to protect a variety of “critical infrastructure” in the nation by making funds available to local agencies responsible for safeguarding those sites.
Examples cited by the department include nuclear power plants, dams, liquefied natural gas facilities, transportation systems and critical telecommunications, banking and public health facilities.
The five cameras downtown are within a block and a half of each other. One is mounted on the southern side of a wooden structure near the corner of Fourth Street and Santa Rosa Avenue. Two more are located in the city’s transit mall, where several cameras already operate. Signs in the mall have long told people “Warning: Transit Mall is under 24 hour video surveillance.”
Two more cameras are located on a newly erected pole at the entrance to the Prince Memorial Greenway, beside a large blue sign that reads “City of Santa Rosa Security Camera Project.”
Schwartz hopes the system is up and running by the end of the year. The optics of each camera are currently covered by a white plastic bag to protect it from the elements.
It is difficult to determine what field of view the cameras will have. That will depend on their capabilities, optics, direction of aim and other technical details.
The greenway cameras could be trained on the PG&E substation directly across Santa Rosa Creek. The transit cameras could cover activities in the transit hub itself, or they could be trained on the nearby AT&T building, which presumably contains sensitive telecommunications equipment.
Schwartz said he doesn’t know if the new cameras will be constantly recording activity or whether they are motion-activated. The cameras will provide police with a live video feed and will also record activity, allowing police to either watch things unfold in real time or review recordings for evidence after an incident has occurred, Schwartz said.
Police wouldn’t need a warrant to watch the live feed or review the tapes because the cameras look out on public space, he said. But the city certainly doesn’t have the manpower or interest in constantly monitoring the cameras, he said.
“Our goal for it is just to enhance public safety out there,” Schwartz said.
Santa Rosa isn’t the only one tapping federal funds for surveillance equipment.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office won $195,000 from the same grant program in 2010. It is in the process of buying 89 radios, 17 surveillance cameras and a piece of radiation detection equipment, said Christopher Helgren, the county’s emergency manager.
And, like Schwartz, Helgren isn’t saying what the money is helping to protect.
“I’m trying to be as transparent as I can here with the information that I can release,” Helgren said.
The county needs so many radios — 85 portables and 4 vehicle-mounted units — because it might need numerous law enforcement officers and firefighters to respond to an emergency at the undisclosed site, Helgren said. The 17 cameras were needed because the location, which he described both as a “venue” and “facility,” is quite large, Helgren said.
The sites are specifically exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, he said.
But sources familiar with the county project said it is Infineon Raceway, which attracts upwards of 100,000 fans for its annual NASCAR event.
The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that the increase in government-funded surveillance cameras represents a troubling trend.
“By itself, pervasive video surveillance threatens privacy rights,” the group wrote in a 2007 report, “Under the Watchful Eye: The Proliferation of Video Surveillance Systems in California.” When combined with other technologies like face-recognition, “it creates the potential for the government to monitor people in public space, in a way envisioned only in futuristic novels.”
Schwartz said he’s heard the concerns that “Big Brother is watching,” but said they are unwarranted.
“There is nothing nefarious here on our part,” he said.
Whatever people’s views about the balance between public safety and personal privacy, the cameras appear to be a trend that’s here to stay.
The county Community Development Commission just approved a project to spend $60,000 on 10 cameras in downtown Guerneville, though that funding is held up pending the fate of redevelopment agencies around the state.
The cameras will replace five that are reaching the end of their lives, and increase coverage of an area that is blighted and has a history of prostitution, drug activity and public intoxication, said John Haig, the county’s redevelopment manager.
Dispatchers will be able to remotely monitor the cameras to improve their response to incidents, Haig said.
“The thing that’s important to remember about Guerneville is it’s the (heart) of the lower Russian River area and it doesn’t have a police force,” Haig said.