Headed to the downtown arena? Smile, you’re on camera

Police cameras will keep watch on downtown near new Sacramento arena

The city of Sacramento will install 10 surveillance cameras near the new Golden 1 Center arena. A growing number of such cameras are going up in key intersections around the city.
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The city of Sacramento will install 10 surveillance cameras near the new Golden 1 Center arena. A growing number of such cameras are going up in key intersections around the city.

Sacramento police are putting the word out to arenagoers and other downtown denizens: It’s about to become much harder to behave boorishly or illegally and get away with it.

The city is installing 20 surveillance cameras in the next month at key intersections and at downtown parking garages to prepare for the October opening of Golden 1 Center and thousands of nightly visitors to the area.

Police plan to monitor those cameras, called Police Observation Devices, PODs for short, on major-event nights from a command center a mile away. The goal, they say, is to control crowds and make the downtown experience safe and sane for visitors, some of whom have expressed concerns about nighttime safety in the urban core.

The camera boxes, strapped to light poles at intersections, are easy to spot. Each has a distinctive blue light and the word “police” stamped on the front.

“We want everyone within eyesight to know they are being filmed,” Deputy Police Chief Ken Bernard said. With 17,000 people at the arena, he said, it is going to be important that folks have a sense of police presence all the way to their car, light rail or bike valet.

“The overarching goal for the city is that people feel comfortable before and after an event,” Bernard said.

Police say they also plan to have squadrons of officers on the streets during major events, including officers on foot, bikes, horses and motorcycles and in patrol cars. The Sacramento Kings will pay for a portion of those extra officers under an agreement with the city.

Police say downtown is not dangerous or crime-ridden, despite that reputation among some. But police do take more crime reports in the central city than in most other areas of the city, a review of police data shows. Reported crimes in the downtown core occur, on average, once a day, and at all hours, with an uptick on weekend nights, and include drug-related crimes, thefts, break-ins, vandalism and assaults.

The street cameras are not new. Sacramento launched its intersection-camera program two years ago with a handful of PODs rotating from intersection to intersection. It has 33 of them up at large intersections around the city.

Many of those PODs do double duty. They have cameras that record what happens in the intersection, as well as a device that captures images of license plates of passing vehicles and sends the plate numbers to a database that police can search by time, date and location. Officers in patrol cars have access to the database via their in-car computers.

Police spokesman Matt McPhail said the PODs have helped them track down hundreds of stolen vehicles in two years. Data from a POD in north Sacramento helped the investigation last year into the shooting death of 17-year-old Grant Union High School football player Jaulon “J.J.” Clavo.

Investigators recently used information from a POD to make an arrest in a sex-trafficking crime. The victim told police the time and place of the crime, and gave a description of a vehicle, but not the license-plate number, McPhail said. Detectives reviewed video from nearby PODs and got the license plate of a car matching the description. Another POD then spotted the car and notified police, allowing officers to pull the driver over.

The PODs are built in-house by Sacramento police. The ones with cameras and license-plate readers cost $11,000. The ones with only cameras cost a few thousand dollars. The 20 new street and garage PODs downtown will have only cameras, not license-plate readers.

While the PODs are reassuring to many, others have expressed concerns about increased law enforcement use of the cameras and license-plate readers, saying they fear police agencies may expand use of cameras to specifically track individuals, invading their privacy.

Tanya Faison of the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter said she is wary of how police might use the PODs. She wants the city to spend more on body cameras for police officers to monitor who they are pulling over on traffic stops.

American Civil Liberties Union officials fault Sacramento and other cities for not holding public hearings to gather community input before setting up surveillance-camera programs.

“A significant number of these technologies don’t even go through a city council vote,” said Tessa D’Arcangelew of the ACLU in San Francisco. “It is basically sidestepping the usual democratic process. These technologies really deserve … a city council discussion. What are the costs and benefits?”

A state law, SB 34 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, in effect this year, requires, among other things, that “a public agency that operates or intends to operate (a license-plate reader) system shall provide an opportunity for public comment at a regularly scheduled public meeting of the governing body of the public agency before implementing the program.”

Sacramento launched its program without a formal City Council public hearing prior to passage of that law. But police say they have been open about their use of the cameras and license-plate readers. The agency issued a press release two years ago highlighting the program when it was launched, and police and city officials say they talk about the cameras with residents at community meetings.

Police say the license-plate data is kept for police by a private company, Vigilant Solutions, where it is merged with license-plate data from other law enforcement agencies in the area to form a broader database. That data is reserved for law enforcement use only, they say, not for private companies such as car repossessors, which also use license-plate-recognition databases.

Sacramento City Councilman Larry Carr said he has talked with Meadowview community leaders about the devices, and they are supportive as well.

“These PODs act as a force multiplier,” he said. “They allow the police to be in more places than they can physically be.”

Councilman Eric Guerra said several neighborhood groups in his southeast Sacramento district want a POD in their area. One, College Greens, is raising money to pay for one, he said.

City Councilman Jay Schenirer called the cameras an effective “modern-day crime-prevention tool” that the city uses judiciously.

“Balancing privacy with security is always a concern, and the city has approached its limited use of cameras in a thoughtful way that respects that balance,” Schenirer said in an email to The Sacramento Bee.

Schenirer is board chairman of Sacramento Regional Transit, which employs cameras at light-rail stations and inside light-rail train cars.

At this point, the cameras are not being monitored in real time. Police typically pull and review tapes when needed. The tapes are on a constantly recording loop that self-erases every few weeks.

Police say they hope to time the installation of the new downtown cameras with the opening of what they call a “real-time crime center” at a police facility on Richards Boulevard, where camera feeds can be monitored as events happen. McPhail said police hope to have the center staffed by police and Regional Transit security officers on nights when major events occur at Golden 1 Center.

Police said last week that they had not decided which intersections downtown will get the 10 new cameras, but they likely will be close to the arena, which is bounded by Fifth and Seventh streets, and L and K streets. Ten cameras also will be installed at entrances and exits to five city garages that are expected to be used by arenagoers.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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