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Modesto police cameras are rolling

A bewildered man in handcuffs couldn't quite figure out how police knew he had hurled an orange safety cone into the sky, landing it squarely on the hood of a pickup.

It wasn't much of an offense, but the incident late last month was the first that Modesto Police Lt. Ron Cloward tracked from new cameras that give him an omnipresent view of the city's downtown.

Officers let the man go when they determined the cone didn't dent the truck. Cloward, watching from the cameras, gave him some advice, too.

"Tell him he needs a shave," he piped in over his colleagues' radios.

Wave when you head downtown to a restaurant or a club this weekend: You're on camera.

This is the third week that the Modesto Police Department is using the monitoring system to watch the area and investigate crime reports.

The $340,000 system marks the completion of three years of work to get cameras that could help police do their jobs more efficiently downtown.

City government leaders and downtown club owners alike are looking to the cameras to reduce the $305,000 each year that the Modesto Police Department spends on overtime patrolling downtown on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

"We just think it's going to make downtown safer," said Les Knoll, owner of the Copper Rhino, a 10th Street club. "It might encourage people who don't want to get caught on camera to maybe go someplace else."

Chris Ricci, general manager of the Fat Cat club on 11th street, recently got a preview of how the cameras can be used. He was impressed by the detail they could achieve, but he hasn't made up his mind on whether he thinks they're good for downtown.

"Although you feel you're being watched, they're intended to keep you safe," he said.

Hyphy event spurred support

The notorious hyphy incident on Labor Day 2006 galvanized support for the cameras. Police were overwhelmed by what they perceived as a hostile crowd that attended an event where hyphy, a style of rap music, was played.

Some who were there said police overreacted by calling in reinforcements to break up the crowd; others said the crowds were unruly and police were in a dangerous position.

No one had a reliable video to settle the debate.

"When something does happen, we'll be able to sort out what does happen so there won't always be that he-said-she-said sort of thing," Knoll said.

That premise appeals to Wendy Byrd, president of the Modesto/Stanislaus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her organization has been critical of Modesto police officers using force to arrest suspects.

"The cameras are an excellent idea," she said. "I think you'll get more reliable information off of video recordings than you would off of personal statements."

Cloward modeled the Modesto system off of one he observed in Long Beach. Modesto City Council members Kristin Olsen and Will O'Bryant have pushed for the system since they visited municipal monitoring programs in Ripon and Stockton in 2006.

Cloward already wants to expand the system. He's looking for grants that could yield funding for a camera at the Ninth Street bus station. Other businesses could raise money to put cameras at key intersections near their properties.

"I'm really hoping to just see this grow," he said.

Privacy training for officers

Officers who likely will use the cameras have been trained on how not to violate someone's expectation of privacy while monitoring downtown.

For example, officers should not use the cameras to look inside private windows. People standing outside a club, however, wouldn't have that same expectation of privacy because they'd be on a public street.

Officers using the cameras must log on to the system with personal access codes. That's one way the Police Department will be able to tell if the cameras are misused.

"If you're violating someone's rights, it's all going to be on camera," Cloward said.

Officers are stationed watching live footage from the cameras during the peak hours of the downtown club scene on weekend nights. Otherwise, the cameras record footage that can be archived for 30 days.

Cloward this week was watching archived footage of men walking around a 12th Street parking lot where two cars had been burglarized. He'd like to make a couple arrests from evidence gathered on the cameras to demonstrate how they'll be used.

"It's not going to take long for the word to get out and the 10 percent that causes trouble might stay away, or start to mind their p's and q's," he said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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