They're shiny and black and about the size of a tennis ball. They hang in a white casing, usually hidden and innocuous. They can see in the dark. If you're on one of Downtown's main fairways, they can probably see you.
It's the Pelco Spectra 3, a video camera that swivels any which way and can zoom in on objects several blocks from where it's situated. There are seven of them with their lenses trained on Downtown, and they might be changing the way the Albuquerque Police Department handles high-density crowds.
"Welcome to 1984," says Randi McGinn, an Albuquerque lawyer. "Orwell was off by a couple years."
Officer Lorenzo Garcia works the split graveyard shift (from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.) in Downtown Albuquerque. He says the cameras should help people feel safer. "In the future, it could be useful. Right now, it's just in the beginning stages."
Mark Entriken, the technician who helped set up the cameras for the city, says they should help keep officers safe, too. "They're not sending [officers] in blind," he says. "Are there guns involved? Is it 20 people fighting? Is it two?" Weekend nights with all the people trafficking Downtown can be chaotic and difficult to navigate, especially when the bars let out, he says.
"It's big brother really helping out."
Six of the seven cameras are on the Alvarado Transportation Center on First and Central and are owned by Albuquerque's Transit Department. A federal grant paid for the system, to the tune of about $56,000. Three of them are used to monitor the station alone. The other three can see up Gold, up Central and under the bridge on Central. Another camera, bought and installed for $8,000 by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) through another federal grant, is stationed at Fourth Street and Central. All of the cameras can be manipulated remotely from the station, or they can be controlled and monitored from the mobile APD unit—a modified RV. They were installed last month.
The cameras, activated by motion, are always on, Entriken explained to a small group of Downtown officers who attended a camera training session on APD's mobile unit Wednesday, Aug. 30. "Right now they're not really set up to have anyone manning them at the station," Entriken says. They also haven't yet been programmed to move automatically, viewing different areas on their own.
The digital video the cameras record is stored for 90 days. After the shooting death on Central and Sixth Street about two weeks ago, Entriken checked the data to see if the Fourth Street camera had picked anything up that could be helpful. That camera can see up to Sixth, he says, but it wasn't pointing in that direction when the incident occurred.
Detective Benjamin Baker says APD will probably monitor the cameras on Friday and Saturday nights at first, or during high-density events, such as the Fall and Spring Crawls. The van could be used for briefings. "Beat officers could take their breaks in there and still see what is going on," he says.
Officer Jerome Armijo says the cameras, even without constant monitoring, should help just by being there. "I think the drug dealers, they find out about them, and the loiterers," he says. But Garcia doesn't think the cameras will see much, given that no one's manning them and they're not on automatic viewing cycles. "You're probably not going to catch a crime unless it's in that direct area for right now," he says. "But it's a start."
Professor Elizabeth Rapaport teaches criminal procedure at UNM's law school. She says it is perfectly legal to film in public, and it's done widely in Chicago's Downtown and extensively in London. "In places where the public is allowed to be, so are the police and so are the video cameras." It is also not a problem to use the video taken by such cameras as evidence in court, she says. "You would probably have to establish time and date stamped on them. You could be queried about the authenticity of the film, but it wouldn't be a problem to introduce it."
But lawyer Randi McGinn isn't as cheerful about the cameras. "Here is the dilemma," she says, referring to what she calls a loss of freedom. "With people's fear of terrorism, people will submit to anything to be safe." McGinn thinks a future in which cameras are in all public places isn't far off.
APD spokesperson John Walsh says cameras aren't so unusual these days. "There are a multitude of cameras in all areas of any major city throughout the U.S. right now. Go into any of the buildings or shopping centers; it is a very useful tool to have a better idea of how to deter crime," he says.
Eventually, the goal is to have cameras in all of Downtown's Central intersections, according to Entriken. Mobile monitoring will be another step, he says, since the cameras are on the city network. "Eventually, when [the city] gets everything deployed down here that it wants, you could be anywhere on the city network and watching."
Last Saturday night, reactions from passersby to news of the cameras Downtown were mixed. Ricky Reese thinks it's weird. "It's not OK," he says. Paul Pino feels that even though they're in a public space, the cameras are an invasion of privacy. "They should at least have a sign that says, 'We have a camera out here,' or something," he adds. Kelly Robertson believes it's just another opportunity for officers to be lazy, "and stay further away from the crowds."
But Ennis Bowder works at a call center where he says he's being watched via camera all day long. "It doesn't really bother me," he says. "I'm used to it. So if it actually serves a purpose and gets things accomplished, then it's OK.” Carl Vidal, who runs Night Light Advertising from a van on Central, says the cameras are wonderful. "You see it every weekend, with all of the clubs and all of the fights down here. I figure if they had cameras and had someone watching the cameras, they could break up fights before they happen." Vidal wishes they would install more of them.
Brian Morris, vice president of the Downtown Action Team, says the cameras are a good way to lessen the army of officers that's required on Fourth Street and Central on weekend nights. "It's another step toward allowing officers to keep an eye on people but not be so heavy-handed," he says.