When a small town replaces cops with cameras

Is this a clever answer to an intractable problem or a series of lawsuits waiting to happen? This story comes to us from the small town of Cave Junction, located in rural Josephine County, Oregon. By “small” we’re talking about less than 2,000 people. And the town is very low on cash, to the point where they can’t afford to have their own police force. The county sheriff’s department is also understaffed to the point where they don’t patrol the streets of Cave junction at night.

In case you hadn’t already guessed, that means that the town has a crime problem. Property crimes and assaults are common and if you dial 911 it will generally take 45 minutes before anyone arrives. The solution? They’ve already formed a sort of neighborhood watch known as CJ Patrol. Citizens walk the streets, provide cover to business owners when they close up shop and record suspicious activity to the sheriffs.

But now they’re adding something else. If all goes as planned, a series of cameras mounted on light poles will cover the streets of Cave Junction. And if the county approves, the CJ Patrol may eventually be monitoring the feeds to keep tabs on the bad guys. (WaPo)

The private, resident-led group, CJ Patrol, already conducts regular nighttime patrols in the city. Rebecca Patton, Cave Junction’s city recorder, recently told Jefferson Public Radio that the volunteers can identify “hardcore criminals” just by looking at them.

“They can identify them by the way that they dress, because they have a certain apparel that they wear all the time, or the way they walk,” she told the station. “Sometimes they carry things all the time, it could be something as simple as a skateboard. They have learned how to identify these people very, very quickly, then they know how to respond.”

The volunteers haven’t received formal training or undergone background checks, Patton said. She told Jefferson Public Radio she might introduce “some sort of background check” before granting them access to security footage.

I’m a big fan of cameras for the police, as the cameras don’t take breaks or fall asleep in their patrol cars. Footage can identify a suspect quickly and the presence of cameras can act as a deterrent to would-be thieves and other troublemakers. But they’re pretty much always controlled by law enforcement officials, except for private porch cameras that can sometimes provide additional help to the police.

Should a group of private citizens be unleashed on a surveillance system? You can sort of see the need for it in a small town with no cops of its own. But at the same time, it’s hard not to be concerned when the city recorder is saying that the citizen’s patrol can identify hardcore criminals just by looking at them or by how they dress or what they’re carrying. (Like… a skateboard?)

Background checks and some formal training for the members of the CJ Patrol might help somewhat, but that doesn’t make you a trained law enforcement officer. Now, if all they plan to do is watch the monitors and report suspicious activity, that might be fine. It could result in some false positives, but should still be generally useful. But if they’re dispatching Patrol members to “check out” suspicious characters, it’s not hard to see this getting out of hand.

Perhaps a better investment of the money this camera system will cost would be to put it toward hiring another deputy who can be available to patrol Cave Junction every night.