More Surveillance Cameras Going up in Gastonia, North Carolina

While city officials laud the decision to install more cameras as a boon for public safety, others note the slippery slope of utilizing a technology that can be abused.

Gaston Gazette

By Michael Barrett

GASTONIA, N.C. -- Surveillance cameras are continuing to pop up in new places across Gastonia, as the city is now installing eyes in the sky within more of its public parks.

The technology has already made its way to Rankin Lake Park and the city's adjacent Skeet and Trap Range, Ferguson Park on Golf Course Drive, and the Adult Recreation Center on West Franklin Boulevard. Nine camera pods are at those four facilities, including five alone scattered around Rankin Lake Park.

Sixteen more camera pods are funded for installation between now and next summer. A number of those will be installed in the next few weeks at Lineberger Park on Garrison Boulevard and Erwin Park in the Highland community. And by the spring, the rest of the new 16 will be set up at Martha Rivers Park on Neal Hawkins Boulevard and T. Jeffers Center off North Myrtle School Road.

Gastonia Parks and Recreation Director Cam Carpenter said they can't cover every area in the parks, but the technology allows the city to observe the most heavily used areas, such as lakefronts, restrooms, corporate shelters and playgrounds.

The cameras benefit visitors and residents in many ways," he said. "But the major reasons we added them are for safety and security."

Carpenter pointed out the practice is part of a regional, state and national trend.

"Bessemer City and Belmont have added cameras to parks, and several others (cities) are in the planning and budgeting phase to add cameras to their facilities and parks," he said.

For some, however, it's a sign of the city continuing down a slippery slope, and it provides even more reason to demand that proper protocol be used to prevent abuse of the technology.

"If an entire law enforcement agency has access to these cameras, there's the potential for people with that agency to use them for unethical reasons," said Molly Rivera, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

These are powerful surveillance tools," she continued, "and the more people who have access to them, the more potential there is for them to be used for negative purposes."
Lenses in all Directions

Traffic cameras have been in place along Interstate 85 and at Gastonia's busiest intersections for many years, and the city is adding more of those through a partnership with the state.

Beyond that, the city took another big step in surveillance in 2017 by spending $288,000 to install 52 infrared cameras throughout downtown. Plans are to spend another $145,000 to gradually expand that coverage to a wider area that will include the new Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment District.

The nine cameras the city has already installed at its parks cost about $11,000, factoring in the three-year software licensing agreement, Carpenter said. The 16 being put up between now and next summer will cost another $22,400.

Each camera pod consists of four camera lenses that provide coverage in each direction, and each of those pods costs about $1,400, Carpenter said. They are mounted high on utility poles in strategic places based on where city officials believe they will prove most effective.

Gastonia police officers have the ability to view any of the park cameras, as do city recreation staff members, Carpenter said. The cameras are monitored by staff as needed, but not on a scheduled basis, he said.

For example, we had a break-in at Ferguson Park," he said. "Staff pulled up video footage and we were able to identify the individual and he was arrested that night."

Digital recordings from each camera pod are stored for 30 days before automatically purging, unless the footage is manually saved for ongoing criminal cases or any similar purpose.

When 6-year-old Maddox Ritch went missing at Rankin Lake Park late last year, cameras at Rankin Lake Park were used by police to aid the investigation into his whereabouts. The situation ended in tragedy days later when the autistic boy was found to have walked out of the park before accidentally drowning in a nearby creek.

But while the surveillance system wasn't a cure-all, officials said it helped rule out possible explanations while the search was still underway.

Remaining Transparent

Rivera said the increasing prevalence of surveillance cameras is something her organization has been well aware of over the past decade.

Video cameras are definitely becoming more widespread in our country, and even in smaller towns across North Carolina," she said.

The ACLU doesn't necessarily object to cameras being placed in larger, high-profile places such as the U.S. Capitol, Rivera said.

"However this trend of blanketing public places like a park with video surveillance is not a good idea, and is not effective for what they're trying to do," she said.

Video surveillance has not proven to be an effective means of reducing petty crime, nor of eliminating the fear of crime, Rivera said. Studies from across the country have not revealed substantial drops in crime where cameras are extensively used, and where their presence is publicized, she said.

As the technology behind video cameras rapidly evolves, making things such as facial recognition more effective, it becomes harder to know whether such surveillance is crossing the line as an invasion of privacy, Rivera said. Cities need to consider that intrusion, while also fully disclosing facts such as how the data is being used, where it's being stored, etc., she said.

When we don't have checks and balances and the public doesn't trust that the city is taking appropriate actions, that can have a chilling effect on public engagement and residential life," she said.

"We understand there are many factors and circumstances that would make video surveillance helpful. Our position is that city owes it to its residents to remain transparent and have strong safeguard in place to prevent abuse."

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