Police spend hours tracking down the owners of private security surveillance cameras, Lt. Chad Nagorski told a roomful of media, police and city officials Tuesday in downtown Duluth.

Private business cameras can often capture video evidence of a reported assault or some other crime. But sometimes the hunt for footage finds officers passing off the task at shift change, said Nagorski, who added "exhaustive measures" are used in the matter of finding out "who owns the cameras and who do we contact?"

But the path to putting footage at the fingertips of the police appears to be drawing near - at least among downtown Duluth businesses.

Contracting with a company called Securonet out of Minneapolis, the Greater Downtown Council announced a campaign requesting as many downtown Duluth businesses as possible to enroll their security cameras into a grid shared with the Duluth Police Department.

"Now we have our missing link," said Kristi Stokes, the president of the Greater Downtown Council that paid for the $15,000 first year of the program. The city, Nagorski said, will pick up the remaining two years at $10,000 each. The three-year effort will be considered a study to determine how well the program works in the city.

Police figure to see efficiencies from reducing what had been a tedious identification process.

"To make your city safer - that is the goal," said Justin Williams, president and founder of Securonet, who is banking on rapid expansion of enrollments in the company's mapping software for what the Greater Downtown Council is calling its Virtual Safety Net. The program drew the support of the Duluth Transit Authority, Minnesota Power, Maurices, A&L Properties, Oneida Realty Company and Bowman Properties, Stokes said, promising others would follow as enrollees - adding that "a lot of our property owners have surveillance."

The agreement will not include access to private spaces, such as hotel rooms, hallways, dining halls, bathrooms or dressing rooms. But police will have the ability to request even live surveillance footage of exterior public spaces such as alleys, street corners, the skywalk and more. Nagorski gave the examples of Tall Ships Duluth and Grandma's Marathon as times the police might want to expand their abilities though the monitoring of live surveillance feeds.

Asked if the police could remotely watch any part of Duluth, Nagorski said, "We don't have the manpower" to dedicate to the task.

Williams said other communities are already using his company to enroll private residences' surveillance cameras.

Police Chief Mike Tusken oversaw the proceedings, and acknowledged the Orwellian elements while downplaying them. Having become familiar with a police force that itself wears video cameras, the chief was confident in the police's ability to use the network with care.

"That's always the case with video surveillance," he said. "It comes down to balancing privacy and the ability to do a public service as well."