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PETERBOROUGH—Even though surveillance cameras seem to be everywhere these days, their effectiveness in ensuring safety and lowering crime rates is still contested. That debate is heating up in Peterborough, Ontario, where city council recently considered joining the ranks of other medium-sized cities in Ontario that have installed closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras.
On Monday, June 20, the Peterborough-Lakefield Police Service made a presentation to the Peterborough city council, requesting support for a plan to install 12 closed-circuit television security cameras in the downtown core. The following week, council debated the request, which would see the initial cost of the cameras be provided by a Civil Remedies Grant Program from the Ontario Attorney General's office.
On top of the initial $150,000 grant, the proposal would require the city to shell out an additional $5,000 each year for continued operation of a system that opponents and even some of its backers admit may not prevent crime.
A number of other medium-sized municipalities, such as Cornwall, Belleville and Barrie have already installed CCTV cameras with funds from the same grant, and it is expected that other towns and cities will follow suit. The city of Barrie, which only has six cameras, spends double what Peterborough proposes to spend on the operation and maintenance of its cameras.
Despite the increasingly widespread use of this surveillance technology in Ontario, Peterborough residents are questioning the value of being watched around the clock. Some of these opponents are concerned about the general privacy implications of such cameras, making reference to the dystopian police-state vision of author George Orwell.
Other concerns are much more immediate, like those of one Peterborough homeowner who asked to remain anonymous. She noted that in her experience working at a women’s clinic in another city, cameras near the clinic became a barrier to women accessing important services. Similar services, such as the Kawartha Sexual Assault Center, are located in Peterborough's downtown core, and she is concerned that such services may be forced to move to more inaccessible locations if the cameras are installed.
Some backers of the plan appear to be banking on the cameras' ability to simply displace crime and other "antisocial behaviour" to other less-visible areas of town. Councillor Bill Juby stated that pushing crime out of the downtown core and over to the next street would be a good start.
This seemed to spark some outrage in the packed council hall, with one attendee shouting that he lived on that next street. The approval came despite 13 presentations opposed to the cameras, and only two in favour.
The two people who spoke in favour of more cameras downtown were both board members of the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA). In A Report on Camera Surveillance in Canada, prepared by the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queens University, it was found that local Business Improvement Associations are largely responsible for the proliferation of cameras, with the political impetus and funding often coming from them.
The same report found “camera surveillance has never been extensively debated as a national policy issue.” What doesn't happen nationally, however, is unfolding on the local level, as illustrated by events in Peterborough.
In an interview, Paul Raino of the Peterborough DBIA stated that "people shouldn’t be overly concerned” about being watched by cameras, noting the “international dangers out there.”
While acknowledging that the cameras will likely not act as a deterrent to crime, Raino thinks that they are a good idea, saying that the DBIA stands behind the idea in order to “support the police.”
According to Peterborough Police Chief Murray Rodd, the Peterborough-Lakefield Police Service made the request to city council on behalf of the DBIA, though he denied that the police were doing the bidding of business at the expense of other communities. Rodd maintained that regardless of the concerns brought up in regards to the system, “New tools will always help the police do their job.”
Redge Smith, who works in Peterborough's downtown core and attended the meeting at city hall, disagrees, arguing that these tools will be disproportionately used against marginalized communities. When interviewed a few weeks after the council debate, he also spoke of the lack of consultation with people who may be impacted, including downtown residents, people who work downtown, the homeless and others who shop and visit the downtown area.
The report given to city council is endorsed only by the police and the DBIA, and indicates no other consultation.
“There is a shockingly transparent partnership between political power in the city, businesses and the police,” said Smith. The money could be much better spent to address underlying causes of crime, says Smith, such as poverty and marginalization. “Instead, it is being used to watch us.”
Matthew Davidson is a community organizer based in Peterborough, Ontario.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.