Show and tell

Everybody wants the police to do something about crime. In the city of Miami, the police department is about to do something really different: mount hundreds of high-tech cameras throughout the city, and especially in high-crime areas. The police will monitor what those cameras record on about 200 closed-circuit television screens at a new, high-tech command center. There also will be 25 high-definition, 55-inch television sets fed by about 400 cameras sited around the city.

It all sounds Big Brother-ish, but in a world where drivers who run red lights get busted by flashing cameras and a simple credit-card purchase brings an onslaught of email promotions, that horse bolted from the barn ages ago.

However, Miami and its police department must go into this endeavor with their eyes wide open — and not just as they watch all those TV screens. There are serious concerns as to the degree to which these cameras can — or will — be used to invade people’s privacy for reasons other than crime fighting.

Howard Simon, of the ACLU, is right to be concerned about abuse, concluding that safeguards and regulations should be firmly in place before the cameras are up and rolling.

In addition, the system appears to have a less-than-stellar track record in South Florida. Miami-Dade County Police and the Broward Sheriff’s Office have employed this complicated security-camera system to fight crime, including tracking gunshots. Those same law-enforcement entities ended up abandoning the system, declaring it a failure at making a difference. Not only that, the gunshot-tracking system simply got it wrong too many times, they found.

Miami police will have to stay on top of not just what they are seeing on the streets, but also whether they are seeing an appreciable improvement in their ability to prevent criminal activity, catch the right suspects and, generally, improve safety and security on city streets — all without going down the road of indiscriminate snooping, as opposed to targeted surveillance.

The technology includes the GPS ShotSpotter system that, as reported by Herald writer Charles Rabin, is a network of sensors and GPS signals placed on strategically located rooftops. The device activates when it registers noises. If the noise hits three sensors, the technology can pinpoint where it is coming from. That information is then relayed to police.

Initially, Police Chief Manuel Orosa had doubts about the system’s effectiveness. He cited other jurisdictions’ experience with ShotSpotter being fooled by too many noises, few of them gunshots. In fact, county police had complained that when the system did correctly identify a shooting location, it didn’t help with apprehension. Of course, gunmen usually don’t stick around.

Chief Orosa now says that ShotSpotter will be more on target once cameras are mounted next to the sensors. We’ll see.

This system of cameras, partially paid for out of federal anti-terrorism funds, could really prove its worth at jam-packed and worrisome venues such the Ultra Music Festival. And if it helps make a measurable difference in the level of street crime, that’s so much the better. But Chief Orosa also provided this wise caveat: ShotSpotter is not “going to stop people from shooting each other.”

True. That will still require a community-wide vigilance and community policing efforts to accomplish. The cameras might be of help, but they are not a magic bullet.