Private Cameras Deployed on Public Property

By: Carlton Purvis, Published on Mar 24, 2014

Should private cameras be allowed on public property?

The upside is that it can reduce expenses significantly for finding the best spots to deploy cameras. The downside is privacy and concerns about misappropriation of public resources.

It is a question that some cities are debating. In Arizona, citizens want an explanation as to why a utility company was allowed to install a camera in their neighborhood to watch one employee’s house.

More recently, in Georgia, a neighborhood association is asking city council to let it put up a camera on public property as part of a security measure for the neighborhood. For this note, we talked to the city and the association about what they are attempting to do here and what surveillance they are using.

[UPDATE April 8, 2014]

The residents of Sandy Springs went to the city wanting to put a camera on public property and what they got was a whole new ordinance regulating surveillance.

Sandy Springs City Council passed a law April 1st allowing private cameras to be installed on public property. The law allows the city to give homeowner's associations's a piece of public land to install a camera. The law also allows cameras on private property no more than four feet high without approval. Poles up to 12 feet can be installed with city approval.

For cameras on public land, "the city will donate a small portion of land following advertised public hearings," Reporter Newspapers reports. Before they can be installed, these cameras must have unanimous approval from any residents within 100 feet of the camera and approval from 75 percent of the neighborhood.

Crime

The River Shore Estates neighborhood association in Sandy Springs, GA says the neighborhood had a recent spike in daytime burglaries -- houses being broken into while people are at work. The burglars are knocking on doors and if no one answers they break in. No burglars have been caught.

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The Solution

The neighborhood association debated how to best address the problem, discussed it with police and came up with a solution: They would install cameras that could capture images of license plates of people going and coming from the neighborhood (assuming the burglars are not their own neighbors).

The residents raised thousands in a matter of months to buy the cameras.

"We sent a letter to all the residents letting them know what we were thinking and what it would involved, and we asked them how much they would be willing to donate," said Vicky Jefson, vice president of the association.

The Equipment

There are only two entrances in and out of River Shore Estates, so the association decided the best use of the cameras would be to capture the license plates of cars going in an out.

Here are the entrances:

The homeowner's association was not clear if their cameras simply capture license plates (LPC) or automatically analyzed / matched them (LPR). The association said it would try and provide the make and model of the cameras to IPVM later.

"We wanted cameras that could clearly see those plates. They aren't sending them to a police database or anything," Jefson said. "They are the kind that recognize license plates, but they won't be reading every single license plate. If there is an incident they we will pull the footage and get the images that they need."

The four cameras were purchased for $21,000.

Public-Private Problem

The problem came up when the association realized that to capture plates coming in, one camera would need to be mounted on a public road leading into the neighborhood. The city has so far been reluctant to let them install a pole on public property to mount the camera.

The city manager says he wants the association to find a way to put the camera on private property, but city council has agreed to look at the issue and come up with a policy either barring private cameras on public property or allowing them with certain exceptions.

Possible Solution

It seems this problem could be solved by mounting the cameras somewhere inside the neighborhood. For example a pole in the yard of the first property inside the neighborhood, but the association doesn't want to do that. It wants the city to annex some land for it to mount a pole for the camera. And the city is considering is giving the association a two-foot-by-two-foot piece of land to do it.

The process is called abandonment. It would include a policy regulating how the camera was mounted and a clause saying the city could take back the land if it needed to. The policy is being drafted now and will be put up for debate at an upcoming council meeting, a local newspaper reported.

The homeowners association has also asked that the process be expedited. We talked to one city official by phone who said it may take some time for the council to make a decision. The camera decision was on the last council agenda, but never brought up at the last meeting.

“It came up at the council meeting but the council did nothing about it. The city doesn’t have an official position on it at this point ... This is uncharted territory. We haven’t had any other cases of people wanting to do this so we’ll get there when we get there,” said a city official.

New Territory

This case explores a couple new areas when it comes to surveillance. For one, if these actually are LPR cameras, this may be a first for neighborhoods using it as a tool to monitor who is coming or going.

Second, it is another case of private cameras being mounted on public property. It this practice set to become more common? In Sandy Springs, will this allow any other groups in the city to install cameras on public property if they have a good enough reason?

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