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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Checking out crime and circumventing the budget process

The issue of more surveillance cameras was dealt with a couple of weeks ago in Getting the picture. It may be helpful in setting the context for the current blog.

It appeared to be a light agenda at the last Community and Neighbourhoods Committee on Tuesday evening and so it was. I had called home to say I would probably be home for dinner and, indeed, I was home before 6 p.m. And that included stopping for gas.

The meeting was already underway when I arrived shortly after 4 p.m. I didn’t even need to look at my copy of the agenda to know where things were going.

Ward 4 Councillor Steven Orser was holding forth on his favourite topic, crime and other unsavoury activity in his ward. He was speaking in support of installing and monitoring security cameras along Dundas Street in the Old East Business District.

At its previous meeting council had asked staff to report back on the feasibility and cost of installing surveillance cameras from Adelaide to Rectory to “help improve community safety”. Orser was promoting the installation because, in his view, it would cut police costs. Mayor Fontana too was convinced that cameras are a deterrent to crime and had been very successful in the downtown. Likewise, Councillor Bill Armstrong pointed out that he had long been a supporter of surveillance cameras, but, if he supported installing them in Old East Village, he expected the same treatment for his strip along Dundas, east of Highbury.

Unfortunately, although the agenda was not very long, only 83 pages including the “addeds” that were distributed after the original release last Friday, it appears that either they had not read it or, having read it, didn’t believe it despite the fact that taxpayers are forking out good money to hire professional staff to provide information to aid them in their deliberations.

According to the staff report, “Our experience with this program is that it does not necessarily affect the crime rate in the area where the cameras are located. This is consistent with findings in other jurisdictions worldwide. The main benefits of the program continue to be early detection of incidents and as an investigative tool for police in response to incidents that have occurred.”

The annual report received less than a year ago was even more specific: “The number of occurrences in the area covered by the cameras had a 65% increase.” Not exactly a deterrent to crime and nothing to justify a sense of increased security. In fact, various studies of the impact of security cameras indicate that any feelings of increased security are short-lived at best.

It’s an easy issue for politicians. Crime resonates with the public. No one has much sympathy for criminals unless, of course, they themselves or their close associates have run afoul of the law. “Get tough on crime” is always a good diversion when things aren’t going as well as they might. Even in a time of budget restraints and tax freezes, spending on police and crime control is exempt.

The staff report made no recommendation on the efficacy of surveillance cameras. Staff hadn’t been asked for an opinion, and none was given. It was pointed out that, if council was of a mind to install cameras, four locations would be most appropriate for them: at the intersections of Dundas Street with Adelaide, Elizabeth, English and Rectory Streets. The cost of installation would be $100,000, unless a half million dollar fibre optic system was being considered, and the ongoing yearly operating cost would be $40,000.

Staff pointed out that there is no money in the base budget to cover this additional expense.

It’s not a lot of money in a billion dollar budget. But these things have a way of creeping up on you. A little extra for cameras, some money for Glanworth Library, sprucing up the downtown for world travelers, at trip or two to China, police and fire budgets that just keep going up. And we're already spending $130,000 a year for cameras and clearly, more requests are forthcoming. Where will the money come from?

That’s where Services Review Committee comes in. It’s a hard-working committee that reviews all the operations of the city to get a handle on where we’re getting value for money and where we could do better. The committee has a look at the council wish list for which no funding is identified and prioritizes them for the council as an aid to its budget deliberations. Ultimately, of course, council has the final say.

To this point, things were progressing as I expected. Everyone was on side, no one was questioning the value or ethics of the proposal. The matter would be going to Services Review with a recommendation. A strong one, by the sounds of it.

Councillor Matt Brown had been quiet throughout the debate. But now he pointed out that, “As a council we have committed to Services Review.” He noted that Services Review acts as a funnel for the many projects that council supports, but that it would identify the highest priority for a council decision at budget time.

It wasn’t good enough for Orser. He wanted Services Review to be ordered to find the money.

That wouldn’t get the support of committee chairperson Harold Usher and he said so. But Orser was adamant; he wanted a commitment from the committee for cameras in Old East Village. “$140,000 can benefit the police budget,” he asserted. He didn’t suggest that the police cover the cost from their own budget.

Thereupon a battle erupted over how the request should be presented to Services Review. Fontana was of the opinion that a strong “favourable recommendation will hold some weight with Services Review.”

Orser didn’t trust the Service Review Committee. No sense taking a chance on its analysis and recommendations. Why not send the issue directly to council with a directive to staff to “find the money.” It won him the vote, but not unanimously. Both Usher and Brown voted against it. Paul VanMeerbergen was absent.

But, as Orser himself pointed out afterward, council can still decide to send this to Services Review.

Let’s hope so. And let’s hope the members of that committee will read the staff reports and ask some critical questions.

  • How effective have cameras been in deterring crime in the downtown?
  • How accepting are the courts of evidence based on open street surveillance cameras?
  • What is the quality of the images obtained?
  • How many arrests, charges and convictions have been obtained?
  • Why have police refused to monitor the cameras?
  • To what extent has residents’ sense of safety increased following the installation of cameras?
  • Why, if the chief benefit is as an aid to police investigations, aren’t surveillance cameras part of the police budget?
  • What other community benefits could be obtained with an outlay of $100,000 and an ongoing yearly payout of $40,000 per year?
  • Could the city introduce WiFi to the area and connect cameras to the internet for monitoring by the community?
  • And why do we need publicly funded cameras when every other person on the street is already carrying a camera?
Just wondering.


Anonymous said...

If I can be driven through the Richmond Dundas intersection, and have the drug dealer kingpin of the four corners pointed out to me, what's the point again?

Anonymous said...

being told ones request maybe referred to a services review committee sounds like a threat to me...What's the actual understood mandate of the that committee? Does it exist as a methodological process of delay and denial without juste cause or reason?

Bryan said...

Oh Gina - can I talk on this one...!

In the last 2 years I've had my car broken into twice (windows smashed) and last weekend both are vehicles had tires slashed. Don't know why. We've looked at cameras several times - can't rationalize what they really provide.

As long as the police stay in their cruisers and drive around, nothing will change. If they would put cops on every street corner off an on, the problems would be gone. But no one wants to do that. Orser copyies the Conservative playbook - if you talk about crime all the time, people will think you're doing something and vote for you.

Can we get past all this and get something achieved here?

Anonymous said...

Doug, it makes the councillor from the area (Orser) feel good and "shows" his constituents he is doing something, even if it is not effective since most people don't know that cameras do not prevent crime.

Gina Barber said...

Referring items for which no source of financing has been identified to the Service Review is standard procedure for council. Service Review (a committee of council) can make recommendations; the final decision is that of the full council.