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With Privacy Technology in Place, Oversight Group to Continue Monitoring Police Surveillance Cameras

Last visual "eyelid" installed on town's 11 cameras this morning.

Now that long-promised privacy technology has been installed on Brookline's police surveillance cameras, the group originally charged with monitoring the system 18 months ago is reevaluating its role.

A contractor for the town was scheduled to install the last of its customized "eyes lids," which are designed to shield the cameras when not in use, on the town's 11 cameras by this morning. The Board of Selectmen agreed to install the technology as part a compromise with the Police Department back in September 2009.

At a meeting of the Camera Oversight Committee on Wednesday, Selectwoman Betsy DeWitt said the board is "comfortable" with the current privacy arrangement for the cameras, which police have agreed to use only during nighttime hours. Only one member of the board, Selectwoman Jesse Mermell, has voted consistently against the use of the cameras, which were paid for with a grant for the Homeland Security Administration.

DeWitt encouraged the oversight committee to continue its work monitoring police use of the cameras, pointing to the 18 months of experience committee members already have in studying the technology.

"In my mind, it would be a tragedy to lose that," she said.

Brookline Police have agreed to produce regular reports about their use of the cameras, in part to abate resident concerns about potential use as well as to justify their continued use as a crime-fighting tool. According to a report produced earlier this month, the department has used footage from the cameras 19 times since switching to nighttime-only use on Jan. 25.

Of those, two requests for were for pre-planned events in Brookline and 17 were for specific footage related to criminal investigations, motor vehicle crashes or traffic flow analysis. Police also received one public records request during the reporting period.

The department reported that the cameras proved helpful in 17 of the 19 footage requests, helping police identify suspects, pursue criminal investigations and adjust traffic controls.

Additionally, the department claimed that there have been 24 nighttime incidents since January in which police would have benefited from the use of the cameras if they had been activated. Though the town's policy allows police to activate the cameras in emergency situations, Chief Daniel O'Leary said it's usually too late by the time police become aware of a crime in progress.

"There an inherent delay in getting the information from the victim," he said.

According to O'Leary, the incidents in which cameras could have played a role involved indecent exposure, assault, kidnapping and armed robbery. The chief said his department has kept track of the incidents so the town can eventually re-evaluate its nighttime-only camera policy, though he stressed that he isn't calling for any changes yet.

"It's always been a lingering question," he said. "That's why we're keeping these stats."

Committee members have also asked the police department to include data about any malfunctions in the system or evidence of tampering in future reports, though they acknowledged that any incident would be unlikely. Chief O'Leary promised to make that information available in the next bi-annual report in June.

Under the policy adopted in September, police are only allowed to operate the cameras from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., except in certain circumstances. A New York-based contractor called SituCon Systems installed a "masking technology" for the system in January to limit the cameras to night time use, and has been working to customize, test and developed the external "eyelids" in the eight months since.

Once installed, the shields will enclose the outside of the cameras when not in use, allowing people on the street to determine whether they are active. Scott Wilder, the department's chief technology officer, confirmed that the shields were being installed on the last camera as of Thursday morning.

SituCon President Seth Cirker said Brookline is the first community to use the technology on street-side cameras, though it has been widely used in the Los Angeles schools system and in many municipal buildings in Marshfield, MA. Cirker said he'd like Brookline to serve as a model for communities looking to balance the twin public safety and privacy concerns when dealing with surveillance cameras.

Brookline's cameras were initially met with strong opposition from privacy rights advocates and civil liberties groups, but a high profile rape and attack in Coolidge Corner in 2009 made it difficult for opponents to argue their case. An effort to kill funding for maintenance and operation of the cameras was withdrawn late last year and no vocal opposition has emerged since.

The Camera Oversight Committee is scheduled to meet again on Sept. 21 to discuss the organization of the group moving forward. The meeting is open to the public

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