Unlike 'Candid Camera', however, this
program has a serious purpose. And it is not out to trap and
make sport of the unwary. Its producers maintain that they want
as many people as possible to realize the cameras are out there
and positioned to catch their every move.
Actually, relatively few frequenters of the downtown business
district realize that, since April, Downtown Visions has been
using surveillance cameras to monitor the streets and sidewalks
to deter crime and other untoward incidents, and to get across
the notion that the area is a safe place to visit.
In theory, anyone can be watched from the time he or she passes
the Hercules building on 13th Street or the Chase Bank
building on Delaware Avenue until
reaching Seventh and Market Streets. In practice, some 90
cameras are continually panning the area watching for anything
"There are no
blind spots. We have capability to see [clearly] anywhere
in our coverage area and we can go a ways beyond that,
although the farther we go, the more we lose in the way of
definition," said Downtown Visions communications coordinator
In place now is the first phase of an system that is
expected to grow. As money becomes available to do so, the
intent is to extend coverage south of the Christina end of
the business district and into the Riverfront commercial
area. Other areas of the city could follow.
The cameras are, for the most part unobtrusive and
difficult to spot. But Stehl said there is no intent to
keep them or the Visions program hidden from view. The
more people who realize the cameras are there, the more
they will deter crime and improve the public perception of
the downtown area, he said.
Downtown Visions' 19-camera component of the system is
monitored from a central control room in the organizations
on Orange Street, usually by a
two-membercrew, between 8 a.m. and midnight seven days a
week, and taped recorded around the clock. The monitors have the
ability to remotely maneuver the cameras to about the same
degree as if they were standing behind them.
So far, Stehl said, that effort has spotted seven criminal
perpetrators in the act, alerted police to their activities and
their arrests. The crimes ranged from stealing newspapers
to passing counterfeit money.
While those incidents are all included on the
organization's 'greatest hits' video, Stehl said the one
on the tape Downtown Visions is most proud of shows a presumed bad
guy strolling away. The cameras caught him flitting from
Right photo and chart courtesy of
Barely visible is
the camera atop the building at Seventh and Orange
Streets. But what is happening within its view is sharp
and clear on the monitors at Downtown Visions' nearby
car to parked car late one night peering
into the vehicles. Assuming he was up to no good, the Downtown
command center dispatched two of its bicycle-riding patrollers
to the area. If the man in question had any intent of pilfering
something from the cars, he had second thoughts when he saw them
and exited the scene.
purpose is deterrence," Stehl said. "We want to prevent things
from happening. We really mean it when we say we have not had
a serious incident since we've been doing this and we hope we
Downtown Visions acquired and
installed its cameras with $635,000 donated by city, county
and state governments, the Du Pont Co. and Longwood
Foundation. The current budget for equipment maintenance
and staff is $192,000 -- again provided by public and private
The rest of the network
consists of the security camera systems in banks, offices and
other commercial buildings. What is different from what is
happening elsewhere is that the devices have been linked into
a single cooperative network where the cameras function, when
necessary in unison. Besides being linked with each other,
they are connected to city police headquarters.
"We can feed whatever we see on our monitors here to the
police and they can follow the same thing we're looking at,"
In one arrest
incident, the crime was spotted with one camera and the two
men who were involved were 'trailed' by a succession of
cameras until a police patrol car caught up and arrested them.
As they left the range of one camera, the men were picked up
by the next one.
As it happened,
that arrest was made almost directly under a sign announcing
the existence of the surveillance system.
Downtown Visions was established in 1994 as the organization
responsible for Wilmington's Downtown Business Improvement
District. Such districts exist in many cities around the
country in an effort to revitalize the traditional core areas
as shopping, dining and entertainment destinations. Downtown
the organization responsible for the presence of the young
people in teal shirts who patrol the area on bicycles, engage
in clean-up activities and perform other functions such as
Stehl said he
does not know how Vision's television surveillance system
compares with other cities in terms of the extent of
contiguous coverage or degree of cooperation. He added,
however, that it is enough of a leader in the field to have
attracted the interest of visitors from several places,
including one group from Venezuela that was in town to look at
city police operations.
criminal defense lawyer has remarked that photographic
evidence the cameras obtain is virtually indisputable in
While most of the camera work
in normal operations is at panoramic range, it is possible to
focus in close enough to clearly identify people.
Stehl acknowledged that such a surveillance system certain to
raise concerns about invasion of privacy. His response to such
a charge is that the cameras and the staff which monitors them
witness what happens on public streets and in public places.
"What you do in public, you expect other people to see," he
said. "In some places, we have the capability of looking in
windows, but we don't do that."
People who never read the George Orwell novel, 1984,
will invariably raise the specter of 'Big Brother watching',
but Stehl pointed out that surveillance -- electronic or
otherwise -- is a fact of present-day life. And, he added, the
desire for personal safety far outweighs the disadvantages as
far as most people are concerned.
If there is any doubt that organizational rules to prevent
abuse of the system are totally dependent on those who man it,
look around the control room. Monitoring the monitors is a
closed-circuit camera connected to the office of the boss,
executive director Martin Hageman.