Video expands Duluth police force

Duluth Police camera
A police camera is stationed high on a light pole along the lake walk near downtown Duluth, Minn.
Photo by Derek Montgomery for MPR News

On any sunny summer day, throngs of locals and tourists are out walking and biking the city's lakewalk here on the shore of Lake Superior.

To Duluth Deputy Police Chief Robin Roeser, the area is a jewel of the city.

"It's a heavily trafficked area," he said. "And we just want to make sure we do everything we can to make sure that it's as safe as possible."

What that means, unbeknownst to thousands of lakeshore visitors, is that they fall under the eye of an increasing number of video surveillance cameras perched high on 20-foot lightposts.

As tight budgets squeeze police departments in Duluth and elsewhere, a growing number of American cities large and small are installing cameras to help deter and investigate crimes. The cameras have proven effective in some cities, but success doesn't come cheap.

Duluth has just finished a second phase of installing cameras along its waterfront and downtown and now has 33 cameras here on the lakewalk and downtown.

"The main reason we have cameras is to deter antisocial or criminal behavior," Roeser said.

An afternoon on the lake walk.
Brittaney Letourneau (front), Shirley Jamison (back left), Jacob McCarthy (back center) and Cheryl McCarthy (back right) enjoy an afternoon on the lake walk Tuesday afternoon near downtown Duluth, Minn. Areas of the lake walk in Duluth are now monitored by police cameras.
Photo by Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But Roeser says they can also capture crimes in progress and then help solve them.

"If a crime happens at one of these places, we can go back, pull up the recording, and maybe find a suspect description," he said.

Duluth is a challenging city to police. The territory is large, stretching 30 miles along Lake Superior. The population is under 90,000. But over three and a half million tourists flood into the city every year. In the past some residents have complained about a lack of officers and slow investigations.

While the city's number of police officers has held flat around 150, Roeser says the number of service calls has risen by 20 percent in the past seven years.

"We're just looking for ways to use technology to leverage our limited resources, these are very tight budget times, and we have to be sure we're using whatever technology we have available to get the most out of what we have."

The cameras in Duluth cost more than $700,000. Generous federal subsidies here and around the country have helped spur a rapid expansion of video surveillance. Despite a lack of conclusive research on whether they're effective, the cameras have spread from large to smaller cities. Tiny Minnesota towns without local police forces - like Sanborn and Hackensack - have installed video cameras to deter crime, even though there aren't any police close by.

Last year, the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., tried to determine whether the cameras are effective enough to pay for themselves.

"The cost of the cameras were more than offset by the benefits of reduced crime," said Nancy LaVigne, the institute's director. "So the benefits in terms of dollars saved by fewer court case processing, less costs of jail and prison..."

"These are very tight budget times, and we have to be sure we're using whatever technology we have available."

But she cautioned that cameras are no substitute for cops. In fact she says they can actually increase the need for staff.

"We found cameras were most successful when they're actively monitored by humans, so you have to invest not just in the technology, but in human resources to staff the cameras," LaVigne said.

So far in Duluth, police don't regularly monitor the video, although officers can call up video feeds from a particular camera on their desktop computers to help with an investigation.

The department is installing a bank of monitors so police eventually can assign someone to watch video feeds during a big event downtown, for example. That's "a way to multiply our force," Roeser said. Rather than "throwing bodies out on a street to watch a particular event," he said they may be more effective by having someone watch the video and direct officers to where they're needed. Roeser also said that as the department expands the number of cameras, police will monitor the video more frequently.

Deputy Police Chief points to a police camera
Duluth Deputy Police Chief Robin Roeser points to a police camera mounted high up on a light pole while talking about the role they play in helping law enforcement near the lake walk in downtown Duluth, Minn.
Photo by Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But even with that extra cost, La Vigne found the technology reduced the overall cost of crime in Baltimore and Chicago.

Washington D.C., though, had less success.

Privacy concerns led to a strict policy barring police from monitoring the video feeds live. La Vigne says that partly explains why the Washington program appeared less effective.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said policymakers need to assess whether surveillance cameras are worth the growing cost, both in dollars and privacy.

"How long are we going to continue to pay those bills, and what are we getting for the money we spend, are we fundamentally safer than we were before this technology started?"

Even some cops concede that can be a tough question to answer. Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Rob Allen says crime has dropped in many of the 300 city locations with cameras. But Allen says he can't prove it was because of the cameras. "What I can tell you is that in cases in which we have video evidence, our prosecution rate is considerably higher. We tend to get convictions far more often."

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