As evidence grows that eyewitness accounts of crimes aren't always reliable, Colorado Springs police say they're comfortable with one fool-proof witness: the video camera.
Two years after cameras were installed downtown, the program is humming along at little cost to taxpayers and with a big payoff to visitors and business owners, police say. Residents are feeling more comfortable patronizing eateries and shops, they add, in an area where a rowdy bar scene led to a black eye for downtown a few years back. Police credit the cameras with helping nab and convict offenders ranging from murderers to reckless drivers.
In early 2012, Mayor Steve Bach said he viewed downtown as a "test market," saying, "If it's successful, we should look at it for all areas of town." But as of now, expansion of the program looks unlikely.
Which is just fine by Loring Wirbel, Colorado Springs chapter chair for the American Civil Liberties Union. Wirbel (who also writes about music for the Independent) says he sees cameras as worrisome but inevitable in a hyper-security atmosphere that's yielded networks of 30,000 cameras in cities like Chicago, as well as inappropriate mining of image databases.
Approved by City Council in March 2012, the camera program went live in December that year. The cost of 17 cameras, installation and related work was $265,500, which included additional work made necessary by the original vendor failing to follow through.
The cameras are mounted on poles and buildings on Tejon Street between Bijou Street and Moreno Avenue, and on Nevada and Pikes Peak avenues east of Tejon. Acacia Park, site of sketchy behavior over the years, has a higher concentration of cameras. Sgt. Michael Spitzmiller, who works with the camera project, says drug dealing has been dramatically reduced: "They know we have eyes in the area," he says.
Ten cameras have pan, tilt, zoom (PTZ) capabilities, allowing monitors to adjust the cameras for a better look. They can zoom in close enough to pick up license plate numbers, for example, though the system lacks software needed for facial recognition.
Cameras record as well as transmit live images, Cmdr. Pat Rigdon says, noting that recordings are kept for 30 days and then purged, unless an image is needed as evidence for a trial. Then, it's retained as long as needed. (Cameras will sometimes make short work of prosecution, he adds, because camera evidence often leads to a plea bargain instead of a trial.)
The Police Department doesn't have data showing a specific number of cases in which cameras played a role. Among its anecdotal success stories: On Aug. 18, 2013, cameras caught the shooting of DeAngelo Brown, 22, a Fort Carson soldier, on the northeast corner of Moreno and Tejon. Police later arrested Larry Spencer, who was convicted of first-degree murder and in March was sentenced to life in prison.
Cameras also film traffic crashes, like one on Oct. 13, when motorcyclist 27-year-old Dustin Downs was killed by a van turning in front of him at the corner of Colorado Avenue and Tejon. The investigating officer later noted it's not often the cops have video of a fatal crash where the colors of the traffic lights are plainly visible. The van driver, Steven Hinman, 42, has been charged with multiple counts, including careless driving resulting in death.
The CSPD has also used camera footage to disprove allegations of excessive use of force and to document the behavior of a sexual assault victim whom police suspected had been drugged, which led to the arrest of the assailant.
The city's system is operated by one part-time employee, who's paid about $12,500 a year, and about a dozen volunteers, whom Rigdon describes as college students, retirees and people who also hold down full-time jobs. Volunteers, who work alone and monitor all 15 screens at once, are trained in radio protocols, privacy concerns and constitutional issues of search and seizure, he says. Windows of downtown lofts, for example, are blacked out on the monitoring screens to protect residents' privacy.
The cameras are monitored daytime hours Monday through Friday, and nights Wednesday through Saturday. Those hours coincide with police duty hours: Four officers, on foot, on bicycles and in squad cars, are assigned downtown during the day and six at night to respond to incidents, including those spotted on cameras.
Spitzmiller says incidents reported downtown in the first quarter of this year increased by 33 percent over last year, with two-thirds of those reported by officers. It's not that downtown is more dangerous than it has been, he argues; rather, it's that cameras enable officers to deal with more incidents, Rigdon says.
Still, the cameras aren't likely to multiply in the city. First, there's no money for them, and second, places where neighborhood associations and businesses have expressed interest — Fountain Boulevard and Chelton Road, and the west side — are more spread out, which would make a similar program more costly.
"We're taking baby steps to be sure when we put them in, they work correctly," Rigdon says.
Wirbel says the ACLU still opposes the idea of broader networks of cameras for 24/7 observation. But he adds, "We accept that police can film citizens, so long as they don't stop citizens from filming back."
So for now, the focus will remain downtown, where Spitzmiller thinks the cameras are even helping prevent crime. "We can see people arguing, minor pushing and shoving," he says, "so we want an officer there before it goes too far."
Susan Edmondson, CEO of the Downtown Partnership, says via email that downtown merchants are happy with the program and the message it sends to repeat offenders: "Illegal activity is not acceptable here."