The city of Urbana will spend $24,000 to upgrade video cameras at its municipal building, and it could install cameras at more sites in the future.
City council members cited safety and the use of security camera footage to identify the Boston Marathon bombing suspects when they approved buying the digital cameras.
But a privacy advocacy group questioned the effectiveness of video surveillance, saying its use often simply pushes potential crimes to other areas of a city.
“They may not be incredibly invasive, but they’re also not terribly effective,” said Amie Stepanovich, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s domestic surveillance project. The organization is a Washington-based research center that monitors civil liberties issues.
The cameras themselves often don’t raise concerns for residents, Stepanovich said, but new technology can allow cameras to include face recognition technology or automatically read license plates, which raises other concerns.
The city of Urbana has had analog cameras in place since the municipal building opened in 1996, said Kerry Brugger, director of administration for the city. But over the past several years, some of the cameras have failed or deteriorated and no longer function well.
On Tax Day earlier this month, for example, Brugger said someone dropped a flaming object into a city drop slot for bills. No cameras covered that area of the building.
“That just kind of reinforces the issue we have that we don’t have a real good vision system around the building,” Brugger said.
The new cameras no longer rely on video tape and can save images for about 30 days. They also provide much more accurate images than the older cameras, which couldn’t recognize a person’s face from a distance beyond 25 feet.
The city has a responsibility to protect visitors to the municipal building, said Allen Evans, a city council member. The city often has visitors paying bills and attending council meetings. The municipal court is also housed in the building and often involves cases that can be emotional for those involved.
“We just need to have some security in that building for everyone’s safety,” Evans said.
In all, more than 20 cameras will likely be installed, said Sgt. John Purinton of the Urbana Police Division. He said he will install the cameras himself, saving the city slightly more than $3,000.
Eventually they could be installed at other city facilities, Purinton said, and in the future officers might be able to view the cameras from their cruisers in case of an emergency. They can also be set to record at all times or only after detecting motion.
“Thankfully council members saw the reasoning behind it and got on board,” Purinton said.
In Springfield, the city uses cameras in a variety of ways, including automatic red light cameras and others used to monitor traffic flow. The city has used red light cameras to enforce traffic laws since 2006, City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said.
The city also uses cameras to provide security at city properties, as well as at other sites to monitor and prevent crimes such as illegal dumping. The cameras at Springfield City Hall were last upgraded about seven years ago, along with improvements to the building’s fire alarms and security system.
Typically, footage from the security cameras is kept for about a week, Bodenmiller said, unless it is needed for a specific case.
Some Champaign County residents asked about the new cameras this week said they are in favor of additional surveillance.
“Considering what happened this past week in Boston, they never would have got those guys without the security cameras,” said Judy Bodenmiller of Urbana.
During the recent terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon, a private security camera from a nearby business captured images that eventually led authorities to the suspects.
Tom Nott, of Mechanicsburg, said he has few concerns about the cameras.
“In this day and age, security cameras are OK,” he said.
Along with city cameras, many private businesses use their own cameras. Springfield police often work with them to review footage from private cameras, Jim Bodenmiller said.
“The reality of our world is there are cameras everywhere, and they’re not all public,” he said.
The Springfield News-Sun provides coverage of events that affect our readers every day, including balancing privacy and public safety. Our reporters have examined those issues in stories that have dug into concerns that unmanned aerial vehicles could be used to monitor public areas and the spread of security cameras.