PASO ROBLES — The Paso Robles police department has recently implemented Phase 1 of its public safety video surveillance system using a $62,500 grant from the Board of State Community Corrections. The system is intended to be used for preventing, deterring and identify criminal activity; to target identified areas of gang and narcotics complaints or activity; to respond to critical incidents; to assist in identifying, apprehending and prosecuting offenders; to document officer and offender conduct during interactions; to safeguard the rights of the public and officers; to augment resources in a cost-effective manner and to monitor pedestrian and vehicle traffic activity.
“Prevention is a big one for us," said Lt. Tim Murphy with the Paso Robles Police Department. "One of the benefits of this system is that they are visible at nighttime. If someone knows they are being recorded, it creates a visible deterrent. And if a crime is committed, if an event is captured, there are investigative leads you wouldn’t have had otherwise."
The monitoring devices are referred to as PODs (Police Observation Devices). Security Lines US installed the cameras, the same company that installed video surveillance systems for Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach. Even though the same company installed the systems, there is no network between the communities — “they are not related at all,” Murphy said.
There are between one and four cameras in each POD. Niblick Road has three separate PODs with nine cameras in total. Centennial Park has three PODs and there is one POD each in the uptown and downtown city parks. Some are fixed and some have PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) capabilities.
“I’m still trying to figure out the resolution,” Murphy said, “but these particular cameras are not capable of facial recognition or license plate reading.”
Nor do they recognize sound, but according to the approved Policy 345, “The department may elect to integrate its public safety video surveillance system with other technology to enhance available information. Systems such as gunshot detection, incident mapping, crime analysis, facial recognition and other video-based analytical systems may be considered.”
In regard to balancing public safety concerns while at the same time protecting an individual’s constitutional rights, Policy 345 assures that “Public safety video surveillance systems will not intentionally be used to invade the privacy of individuals or observe areas where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists.” The policy further states that the system, “shall not be used in an unequal or discriminatory manner and not target protected individual characteristics including but not limited to race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation…equipment shall not be used to harass, intimidate, or discriminate against any individual or group.”
After much searching at the Downtown City Park, the single POD was discovered hovering high above 11th Street, keeping a watchful eye over the playground and the public library. The device was pointed out to Jason Woodward, of San Miguel, as he was watching over his children on the apparatus. At first he was surprised as he hadn’t noticed it despite the flashing blue lights. When asked how he felt about it, Woodward approved with a nod, “We already have one in San Miguel. I think it’s safer. Some people feel their constitutional rights are being impeded upon but I think it's safer for everybody all the way around. Because there are some predators around that are in some spots where they’re not supposed to be. Especially on the playground.”
At Centennial Park, one of the three PODs can be seen hovering over a small pavilion of empty picnic tables. As for the other two, “Perhaps there are some down there,” said John Siemens, a 20-year veteran as the Centennial Park Tennis Courts instructor, as he points toward the heavily wooded ravine that cuts through the park, “that’s where all the shenanigans happen.”
“In the grand scheme, other cities have been using these systems for years — Los Angeles, New York," Murphy said. "Locally, Arroyo Grande led the charge. We have been aware of their success because our departments are very tight."
As for the effectiveness here in Paso Robles, “The project is so new, we have no success stories yet," Murphy said. "We have no idea how much crime it's preventing either.”
When asked if there were any plans to expand the project, Murphy responded, “That will be dependent on the grant — it is potentially annual, but we need to gauge the cost-effectiveness, give this time to make sure it works for the community and the officers. I envision this growing. We just need to see how this phase develops.”