Government cutbacks mean police budgets are feeling the pinch all across Ontario. Ottawa is no exception. A budget squeeze means the Ottawa police should be investigating the potential for surveillance cameras for law enforcement.
Mayor Jim Watson’s campaign promise to keep tax raises low means next year’s police budget only includes a small increase, but the force is already stretched.
The budget notes that each Ottawa officer is responsible for 477 residents, far more than other major Canadian cities including Toronto, at 317 residents per officer; Vancouver, at 376 residents per officer; and Calgary, at 436 residents per officer.
To make matters more difficult, the police have recently stepped up their presence in the ByWard Market on the rowdiest nights of the week in order to combat a perception that the population in the downtown destination was out of control.
Matthew Skof, who heads the police union, says the answer is a new levy on alcohol sales in the market. But forcing revellers in one area to cover the cost will drive away business and unfairly punish Lowertown tipplers looking for a drink.
Instead, high-traffic areas such as the market, Elgin Street, sections of Bank Street and Little Italy should have public surveillance cameras installed to monitor public behaviour and deter potential criminals.
Surveillance cameras are already in use in private establishments such as gas stations, grocery stores and convenience stores. Extending the monitoring to the streets would be cost-effective.
Used as a supplement, not a replacement for beat cops, cameras could catch perps in the act and provide a watchful eye on the excesses of the drunk near bars across the city. Using cameras would also free up officers to work on more serious crimes.
The presence of police officers is obviously valuable to keeping the peace, but so too could cameras provide a deterrent effect for the petty crime that defines high-traffic areas. Having 24-hour high-definition video of some of Ottawa’s most dangerous areas would be a boon to law enforcement, even if the feed wasn’t monitored at all times.
The cost and size of cameras has made them a commodity item, with startup and upkeep costs well below that of a uniformed officer.
Public disclosure records from 2012 show more than 120 Ottawa police constables earned more than $100,000 in the past year. Their salaries are well-earned, but surveillance cameras never demand overtime and don’t require benefits.
Civil libertarians will decry the increased use of surveillance cameras for law enforcement as the first step down a slippery slope to an Orwellian nightmare of a police state.
But cameras can act both as a force for law and a check on enforcement; cases of overenthusiastic police work would also be caught by the all-seeing digital eyes.
A surveillance tape was key in the recent trial of an Ottawa police officer charged with sexual assault in relation to a jailhouse strip search. In this case, it’s Big Brother who is watching the watchmen.
There is no substitute for highly trained police officers walking the beat, but surveillance cameras in the ByWard Market, along the Elgin Street strip and down Bank Street could provide an invaluable aid to law enforcement and save the city money.
Cameras in public spaces would not invade private life but rather provide a check on those who would do harm to others. The Ottawa police can use their limited budget more effectively if they invest in electronic surveillance.