Merced installs surveillance cameras

MERCED — Soon there will be more eyes watching Merced motorists.

The city is in the final stages of installing a $93,000, eight-camera video surveillance system meant to prevent crime downtown.

The system will be part of a wider net of cameras monitored by the Merced Police Department, which will include video surveillance at three Merced high schools as well as businesses that want to be part of the system, say city officials and the Police Department.

"Think of the cameras as an extra police officer who's available to watch over particular locations," city spokesman Mike Conway said.

Merced is not the only valley city monitoring its downtown. Modesto installed cameras several months ago to help police watch downtown and investigate crime reports.

The Merced City Council voted unanimously for the cameras in June.

The system will be integrated with the city's existing cameras and surveillance systems. For instance, police cars have cameras that turn on when the cars reach a certain speed or when they turn on their blue and red lights, said police spokesman Lt. Andre Matthews.

Someday police officers will be able to access the wireless cameras downtown from their cars.

Along with the new system, there are six portable still cameras in some parks and other areas with motion detectors to deter and record vandals, Matthews said.

The Police Department is looking into installing cameras at some intersections to record accidents and catch people who run red lights.

As the use of surveillance cameras increases throughout the city, the effectiveness of such cameras as crime prevention tools is up for debate.

The American Civil Liberties Union has issued several reports detailing the growth of surveillance cameras, as well as the lack of evidence for their efficacy.

A 2007 ACLU report, "Under the Watchful Eye: proliferation of video surveillance systems in California," illustrates the number of camera systems in California. Thirty-seven cities have some type of video surveillance, and 18 of those are extensive. None of these jurisdictions has conducted a comprehensive study on the cameras' crime prevention ability.

The study also found that "surveillance cameras will not improve public safety, and limited funds can be better spent on programs that are both proven effective and less invasive, such as improved lighting, foot patrols, and real community policing."