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Old Town cameras could focus on troubled areas

Council poised to approve program despite protests
by: Tribune File Photo, Portland's City Council will discuss a plan to place surveillance cameras in Old Town trouble spots, like the corner of Northwest Sixth Avenue and Flanders Street.

The City Council appears poised to approve a program to install surveillance cameras in Old Town that will be monitored by the police this Wednesday.

The program is intended to reduce street-level drug dealing and other nuisance crimes in Old Town. It has come before the council twice, each time drawing opposition from civil liberties organizations and protests outside City Hall.

Four of the five council members voiced support for the program on May 31, however. That was after Police Chief Mike Reese presented a directive governing the program to prevent police from using the cameras to violate the rights of law-abiding citizens. The policy had been requested by Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who expressed his satisfaction with it.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she could not support the program without some changes, however. She offered an amendment to require the Portland Police Bureau to provide an annual report on how the cameras have been used, their costs and they're effectiveness. Her amendment failed when no other council member would second it.

The ordinance to be considered Wednesday would indemnify building owners from liability for the cameras installed on their property. Several Old Town business owners testified in support of the program, saying it will help reduce crime in their neighborhoods, which has long been plagued by drug-related problems.

The program has been opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and Portland Copwatch, among others. They argue that cameras are ineffective at reducing crime and violate the privacy of citizens who are not breaking the law.

According to the new police directive, only bureau members "with a need to know or with investigative, administrative or management responsibility" will be able to view the videos taken by the cameras. All recordings will be destroyed or deleted within 30 days, unless being used in a criminal investigation or prosecution.

The council has taken a number of other steps to reduce crime in Old Town. They include the re-enactment of a drug-free zone, the re-establishment of police walking beats, and the allocation of city fund for a Multnomah County deputy district attorney to prosecute crimes in the area.

There is no additional cost for the program. Police say they already have the cameras.