Surveillance city

Sacramento’s public-surveillance program will likely get little public scrutiny.

Sacramento’s public-surveillance program will likely get little public scrutiny.

Mall security, Google maps, random cell-phone cameras on the street. We’re all potentially being watched at any given time, so most of us don’t get too worked up about the particulars.

So, when Mayor Kevin Johnson and the Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel cooked up a new public-surveillance program—with more than $600,000 in Homeland Security money—it’s not surprising that no one seemed to much notice or care.

The grant will pay for 32 fixed cameras to be mounted in high-crime neighborhoods and at Regional Transit stations around the city, as well as four trailers outfitted with cameras to be hauled to special events, such as political demonstrations or the New Year’s ball drop.The cameras are being paid for by the Homeland Security Division of the California Emergency Management Agency.

“I think it’s just another play toy for the police. It’s not going to do anything,” said James Updegraff, head of the Sacramento chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Updegraff is the only guy in town who seems concerned that there has been zero public input on this plan, and he wrote a letter to Johnson saying, “These sophisticated cameras can track who you are, where you are going, and what you are doing—recording the sign you are carrying at peaceful demonstrations, the book you are reading in the park, and who you are hugging goodbye at the train station.”

The ALCU has for years produced studies showing that surveillance cameras don’t prevent crime. In fact, according to an ACLU survey of crime statistics in San Francisco, crime actually increased overall at locations where public-surveillance cameras were installed.

Bites assumes there are studies that show the opposite, but local law enforcement makes a different argument entirely. “More and more we are solving a lot of crimes by using surveillance and putting it out there. It definitely generates a lot of leads for our detectives,” said Sgt. Norm Leong with the Sacramento Police Department.

He said the item was likely to end up on the city council’s consent calendar at a future meeting. The consent calendar is where the city puts stuff that doesn’t warrant a public discussion. “It’s free money, why wouldn’t you take it?” Leong explained.

On the other hand, why wouldn’t you ask before you start spying on people? “I think they should have public hearings in the neighborhoods where they want to put these things,” said Updegraff.

Speaking of things that people didn’t notice, on May 3, The Sacramento Bee raised its street price from 50 cents to 75 cents per paper.

Bites gets the paper at the Bitescave and so failed to notice the street price going up. Back at the office, nobody else had noticed either, because, like Bites, they subscribe, or because, like most of the rest of the world, they wouldn’t dream of paying for news content.

Most of the changes to the Bee—charging for the weekly TV supplement, fuzzier photo printing, smaller page sizes—have been painstakingly outlined in editor Melanie Sill’s weekly column. But for some reason, the Bee chose not to tell readers about the 50 percent price spike.

According to Bee spokesperson Pam Dinsmore, the new price “has been relatively well-received based on the minimal response we’ve gotten.” It’s too early to tell if the new street price has affected sales, “It might take month for that to shake out,” she added. Subscription prices are also likely to rise slightly this summer.

“No one noticed, because the Bee has done a very good job of slicing and dicing their audience,” said Barbara O’Connor, communications professor at Sacramento State. The audience who buys the paper out of the box wants what it wants, and it’s willing to pay the extra quarter. “It’s not a big number, but it’s a loyal number.” And a shrinking one, Bites suspects.