If there are smiles on the faces of the more people passing by in downtown Wilmington than might be expected, it could be that they're among the slowly increasing number of folk who realize they're on camera.

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 amiss.

"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 Matthew Stehl.

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 headquarters

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

brought about 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 parked

Right photo and chart courtesy of Downtown Visions

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 control room.

car to parked car late one night peering into the vehicles. Assuming he was up to no good, the Downtown Visions 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.

"Our main 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 never do."

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 sources.

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," Stehl explained.

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 Visions is 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 giving directions.

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.

A prominent criminal defense lawyer has remarked that photographic evidence the cameras obtain is virtually indisputable in court.

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.

Posted on August 23, 2001

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Visit Downtown Visions' Web site

[2001/3Q/News Front/footer.htm]