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Published August 16, 2012, 11:19 AM

Duluth police use video surveillance along lake

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Duluth's heavily trafficked lakewalk path features stunning views of Lake Superior — and an increasing number of video surveillance cameras.

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Duluth's heavily trafficked lakewalk path features stunning views of Lake Superior — and an increasing number of video surveillance cameras.

Duluth's Deputy Police Chief Robin Roeser told Minnesota Public Radio News that the 33 cameras, perched atop 20-foot light posts on the lake path and the adjacent downtown area, are a precaution to keep city residents and tourists safe. Tight government budgets have prompted Duluth, and an increasing number of cities in Minnesota and elsewhere, to install cameras to help deter and investigate crimes.

The size of Duluth's police force has held steady at about 150 officers even as service calls rose 20 percent over the last seven years. It's a challenging city to police, geographically large as it stretches 30 miles along Lake Superior and welcomes more than 3 million tourists a year. That's led some residents to complain about a lack of officers, and slow investigations.

"We're just looking for ways to use technology to leverage our limited resources," Roeser said. "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."

Roeser said the main goal of the cameras is to deter criminal or antisocial behavior from occurring, but that they can also be used in investigations.

Duluth spent more than $700,000 on its cameras. Federal subsidies have helped spur a rapid expansion of surveillance camera use around the country. Some small Minnesota towns without their own police force have installed cameras to deter crime, including Sanborn and Hackensack.

Last year, the Washington-based Urban Institute tried to determine whether the cameras are effective in relation to their cost. Nancy LaVigne, the institute's director, said they found the cost of cameras was generally offset by the benefits of reduced crime — fewer court cases, and less jail and prison costs.

But LaVigne said they are not a substitute for adequate police staffing.

"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, Duluth police don't regularly monitor video feeds from the cameras. The department is installing a bank of monitors, so police eventually will be able to assign officers to watch feeds during big events in the downtown and lakeshore areas. Roeser said as the number of cameras increase, police hope to assign officers to monitor the feeds more frequently.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said policymakers must weigh whether the cameras are worth the growing cost — both in dollars and lost 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?" Samuelson said.

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