Watchful eye: Bountiful approves public cameras
Petty crime spurs surveillance program; some raise privacy concerns.
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Bountiful • Hoping to reduce vandalism, theft and drug use on public property, Bountiful's elected leaders have approved installing surveillance cameras at several city parks, the cemetery, landfill and golf course and at a popular trail head.

Parks managers and police have talked about such cameras for years, in reaction to thousands of dollars in costs from repeated damage to playground equipment, graffiti, holiday items stolen from graves and other acts of petty crime.

"It's kind of frustrating for us to take reports of vandalism at parks every day or every few days and not have any evidence to go off of," said Bountiful police Lt. Ed Biehler, who has led the effort to get the cameras.

Crews plan to have the six monitoring devices mounted and operational by spring, following a vote by members of the Bountiful City Council in late September to spend $35,000 for the equipment, city parks director Jerry Wilson said.

The cameras will be aimed at areas of Bountiful City Park at 4th North and at North Canyon Park along South Bountiful Boulevard and 400 East; the No. 10 tee at Bountiful Ridge Golf Course; graveyards at Bountiful Memorial Park cemetery; buildings and equipment at the landfill west of town; and a small parking lot and facilities at the entrance to Hidden Lake trail.

The all-weather units will allow for "passive surveillance," capturing images around the clock and sending them via Internet link to be stored on a computer server at Bountiful City Hall. Workers only intend to actually look at the recordings when illegal activity is reported by city crews.

"Nobody is going to be monitoring these all day and night," Wilson said. Images will be kept for about a month, then deleted.

Mayor Joe Johnson described the six cameras as an experiment for the city and said officials are hopeful that awareness of the program alone will deter the illegal activities being targeted.

"We're actually pretty excited to see what kinds of things might develop from it," Johnson said.

Biehler estimated the city has spent upward of $15,000 on vandalism and graffiti to park facilities alone over the years. At several locations, the cameras are meant to patrol road conditions instead of people or, in the case of the golf course, to improve flow of golfers from hole to hole.

Expenditures on the cameras will be drawn from existing budgets of the city parks, public works and police departments, except for the Hidden Lake trail head camera, which will be paid for by neighborhood residents concerned over late-night loitering and anecdotal evidence of illegal drug use.

Though city council members voted unanimously to support the camera installation, some raised concerns the surveillance might intrude on the privacy of city residents — worries that Johnson said are not merited in this situation.

"It's not a privacy issue," the mayor said. "We're not spying on people walking down a sidewalk or on the street. We're trying to deter crime."

But at least one Utah civil liberties advocate familiar with the issue is not convinced.

The Utah chapter of American Civil Liberties Union opposed the 2009 installation of four surveillance cameras in downtown Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park. The same privacy arguments apply in Bountiful's plan for public cameras, said John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU in Utah.

Such government-sponsored monitoring infringes on the basic right "of not being watched constantly," Mejia said. Surveillance also threatens to chill free speech on public property, such as protest rallies and other gatherings, as well as creating the potential for severe abuses, such as voyeurism and racial profiling.

What's more, the ACLU lawyer said, several studies of the widespread surveillance elsewhere in the United States and the United Kingdom shows its efficacy at reducing crime "is questionable at best," especially compared to traditional methods such as stepped up police presence or better street lighting.

Public surveillance "can get creepy," he added. "People feeling watched all the time is not the America I want to live in."

tsemerad@sltrib.com