More eyes in the skies deter crime, Duluth police hope

On any sunny summer day, throngs of locals and tourists are out walking and biking Duluth's Lakewalk along Lake Superior. To Duluth Deputy Police Chief Robin Roeser, the area is a jewel of the city. "It's a heavily trafficked area," he said. "And...

Surveillance camera
A surveillance camera mounted high on the pole at left keeps an eye on activities on the Lakewalk where it meets Lake Place Park. (Bob King /

On any sunny summer day, throngs of locals and tourists are out walking and biking Duluth's Lakewalk along Lake Superior.

To Duluth Deputy Police Chief Robin Roeser, the area is a jewel of the city.

"It's a heavily trafficked area," he said. "And we just want to make sure we do everything we can to make sure that it's as safe as possible."

What that means, unbeknownst to thousands of lakeshore visitors, is that they fall under the eye of an increasing number of video surveillance cameras perched high on 20-foot light posts.

As tight budgets squeeze police departments in Duluth and elsewhere, a growing number of U.S. cities large and small are installing cameras to help deter and investigate crimes. The cameras have proven effective in some cities, but success doesn't come cheap.


Duluth has just finished a second phase of installing cameras along its waterfront and downtown and now has 33 cameras on the Lakewalk and downtown.

"The main reason we have cameras is to deter antisocial or criminal behavior," Roeser said.

But they can also capture crimes in progress and then help police solve them.

"If a crime happens at one of these places, we can go back, pull up the recording, and maybe find a suspect description," he said.

Duluth is a challenging city for police, given its large territory stretching 30 miles along Lake Superior. Although the city's population is less than 90,000, more than 3.5 million tourists flood the city every year. In the past, some residents have complained about a lack of officers and slow investigations.

While the city's number of police officers has held flat at about 150, Roeser said the number of service calls has risen by 20 percent in the past seven years.

"We're just looking for ways to use technology to leverage our limited resources," he said. "These are very tight budget times, and we have to be sure we're using whatever technology we have available to get the most out of what we have."

The cameras in Duluth cost more than $700,000. Generous federal subsidies here and around the country have helped spur a rapid expansion of video surveillance.


Despite a lack of conclusive research on whether they're effective, the cameras have spread from large to smaller cities. Tiny Minnesota towns without local police forces -- including Sanborn and Hackensack -- have installed video cameras to deter crime, even though there aren't any police close by.

Last year, the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., tried to determine whether the cameras are effective enough to pay for themselves.

"The cost of the cameras were more than offset by the benefits of reduced crime," said Nancy LaVigne, the institute's director. "So the benefits in terms of dollars saved by fewer court case processing, less costs of jail and prison."

But LaVigne cautioned that cameras are no substitute for police officers. Instead, she said, they can increase the need for staff.

"We found cameras were most successful when they're actively monitored by humans," LaVigne said. "So you have to invest not just in the technology, but in human resources to staff the cameras."

So far in Duluth, police don't regularly monitor the video, although officers can call up video feeds from a particular camera on their desktop computers to help with an investigation.

The department is installing a bank of monitors so police eventually can assign someone to monitor video feeds, as they might do when there is a big event downtown.

That's "a way to multiply our force," Roeser said.


Rather than "throwing bodies out on a street to watch a particular event," he said, cameras may allow police to more effectively monitor crowds by having someone watch the video and direct officers to where they're needed.

Roeser also said that as the department expands the number of cameras, police will monitor the video more frequently.

But even with that extra cost, LaVigne found the technology reduced the overall cost of crime in Baltimore and Chicago.

Washington, D.C., however, had less success.

Privacy concerns led to a strict policy barring police from monitoring the video feeds live. LaVigne said that partly explains why the Washington program appeared less effective.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said policymakers need to assess whether surveillance cameras are worth the growing cost, both in dollars and privacy.

"How long are we going to continue to pay those bills, and what are we getting for the money we spend?" he asked. "Are we fundamentally safer than we were before this technology started?"

Even some law enforcement officials concede that can be a tough question to answer.


Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Rob Allen said crime has dropped in many of the 300 city locations with cameras. But Allen said he can't prove it was because of the cameras.

"What I can tell you is that in cases in which we have video evidence, our prosecution rate is considerably higher," he said. "We tend to get convictions far more often."

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Duluth at 100.5 FM or online at

Sign on the Lakewalk
A sign on the Lakewalk in Canal Park alerts visitors to camera surveillance of the area in May 2011. (Bob King /

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