With their blinking blue lights, surveillance cameras are popping up in a lot of public places these days – especially in shopping centers and high traffic intersections – in cities like Ceres and throughout the country. They are intended to both be a deterrent to criminal activity and also a tool to help police capture law breakers.
“Most people look up and see a blue light they may think twice about doing something they shouldn’t be doing,” said Ceres Police Chief Rick Collins.
One such camera was installed recently in the new Ceres Gateway Center at Service and Mitchell roads. While the center has only fast-food establishments and no big box retailers which are frequently targeted by thieves, the camera could thwart would-be car burglars, said Collins.
While that system is privately paid for and monitored remotely by a security company, the Ceres Police Department now has cameras in city parks to keep an eye on criminal activity such as assaults, theft, vandalism and graffiti.
In 2022, the Ceres City Council approved the use of $100,000 in ARPA funds to purchase and install surveillance cameras throughout city parks to deter illegal activity such as vandalism and theft. As a result, 41 EPIC i0 surveillance cameras are positioned within six parks – Ceres River Bluff Regional, Smyrna Park, Guillermo Ochoa Park, Roeding Heights, Whitmore and Strawberry Fields. Ten cameras are positioned in Smyrna Park, aimed at the City Corp yard, the skate park, parking lot and various other locations. Some are fixed cameras while others can remotely pan, tilt and zoom. The cameras capture images in higher resolution to help identify license plate numbers as well as faces.
“It’s a deterrent,” said Chief Collins. “Some of the cameras have conspicuous blue flashing lights on them and that’s two-fold – it’s a deterrent and it’s to let people know you’re being watched, you’re being recorded. We have the ability to monitor those cameras 24/7 in our dispatch center so if we see something we can have the ability to look at whatever’s taking place in real time or after the fact.”
The cameras have resulted in arrests, Collins confirmed, including one major crime which he wouldn’t elaborate on due to it being “tied to a larger investigation – that one was huge.”
Collins said he will press the council to use some of the second installment of ARPA funding on to purchase and install cameras at major intersections. Cameras at key intersections like Hatch and Mitchell, Hatch and Herndon and Whitmore and Mitchell could prove beneficial as an investigative tool such as crime detection, identifying suspects and tracking the path of missing persons and vehicles.
“We are woefully behind in the entire county when it comes to that.”
For years the city has been moving its one camera to different street locations in an effort to combat illegal dumping, such as along Richland Avenue at Magic Lane.
“We’re actually in the process of purchasing some more cameras that can be moved around to target illegal dumping because that is such a huge problem in the city.”
Surveillance camera images of vehicles, license plates and suspects do help police and code enforcement officers track down culprits and issue citations accompanied by hefty fines.
Because of the prevalence of organized retail theft rings, some major retailers which have been plagued by thefts – such as Lowe’s, Walmart and Home Depot – install their own portable solar-powered surveillance towers in their parking lots. They serve as clear signals to those who want to take advantage of California’s lax prosecution of thefts under $950.
While some citizens feel the cameras make them safer, not all are comfortable with the broadening presence of cameras in public spaces, citing concerns about invasion of privacy.
“We are seeing a trend in the last five years, something that we never saw before, and that is municipality-run and police-run surveillance cameras and networks,” said Jay Stanley, a Washington, D.C.-based senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Policy and Technology Project told NBC News.
Chief Collins doesn’t share those concerns.
“We live in a society where there’s cameras just about everywhere, whether you walk in front of somebody’s house, front door, you’re being recorded,” said Collins. “When you go inside a store you’re being recorded. The people that are using the system, if they use them in the way that they’re intended to be used and not being used in nefarious ways, I’m okay with it. If they start to abuse the technology and use it in nefarious ways, I don’t support that at all.”