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It's 'Candid Camera' every day

Dec 27, 2013 - By Chris Peck

The surveillance system at Riverton City Park is the newest example, but far from the only one.

Remember your excitement as a kid when you heard the news that radar from around the world was tracking the travels of Santa?

Early on Christmas Eve day the radio picked up the news. The Ranger always ran an update just before press time.

Unknown eyes in the sky were charting Santa's every stop from Anchorage to Amarillo.

Every rooftop, every chimney, every ho-ho-ho was being documented -- or so the conspirators on Christmas Eve would have kids believe.

That notion of somebody watching you all the time is no longer a tall tale.

And it's not just Santa.

These days the combination of Google streetscape maps and the ever-peering lenses of video surveillance in stores, offices and public spaces means most of us are on a version of "Candid Camera" all the time.

Riverton recently got a fresh taste of this when the Riverton City Council approved placement of a 24/7 security camera in City Park.

The camera, along with an emergency telephone, means that law enforcement can look at what's happening in the park any time, day or night.

Because that's what our world has become.

Look up sometime when you're pumping gas, or buying groceries or yes, walking in the park. Security cameras, crime-stopper cameras, surveillance cameras are everywhere.

"And the law is pretty clear on this,'' explained Riverton chief of police Mike Broadhead when we chatted about the value of and need for video cameras. "Basically when you are moving around in the public these days you have no expectation of privacy. ''

It's a trade-off, really.

We give up a portion of our privacy in exchange for the sense that by having cameras focused on our every move we will be safer, less likely to be victimized, and know that the bad guys will have a harder time getting away with their bad stuff.

Chief Broadhead acknowledges some value in all that video.

"Generally, the cameras are good tools for collecting evidence after the fact,'' he explained. "Juries want to see the crime occur, because that's what they are used to seeing on TV."

And, the chief noted, the minute you don't have a video, or don't watch it, a defense attorney will jump on that fact and argue that there isn't enough proof of a crime.

Still, the Riverton chief has grown increasingly uneasy at where all this public watching is headed.

For one thing, the 24/7 surveillance cameras have added a tremendous load to small-town police work.

"It's almost become system overload for us,'' the chief said. "One of the first things we have to do after a crime is reported is round up all the businesses that might have video and then sit there and watch it to see if they have caught part of the crime. That's incredibly time consuming.''

And not always very helpful.

The chief noted that two other surveillance cameras in Riverton recently were used to try to find a thief of some playground equipment and a robbery suspect. Many minutes of grainy images later, the effort didn't help solve either case.

But there is a bigger issue that Chief Broadhead has begun to turn over in his head.

"I hate to go deep on you,'' he said, "but this really is new stuff, and we're still in a transition period when it comes to figuring out how much of this we want.''

Chief Broadhead theorizes, for example, that "we could solve the crime problem in our country'' if we were willing to put a surveillance camera on every corner and pay somebody to watch for suspicious activities at all hours of the day.

"(But) those steps would have to be so draconian that nobody would want to live in the country anymore,'' he reflected.

"In a free country, there will always be people who take advantage of that freedom to commit crimes, and that's what we have to balance.''

Wise words from the man who is paid to watch the cameras that are watching us.