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Holladay Journal

New ‘Safe Cam’ program to crowdsource surveillance

Jun 14, 2021 10:57AM ● By Zak Sonntag

Police Cruiser ready to respond to call (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

The Unified Police Department inaugurated a new program that encourages private households and businesses with surveillance cameras to register with a UPD data base with the hope that private video surveillance footage may help officers solve crimes.

When announcing the Safe Cam program at a May council meeting, Holladay Precinct Chief Justin Hoyal explained that having quick access to a list of the owners of private surveillance cameras will speed up police work by helping detectives locate potentially relevant criminal evidence during real time investigations.

“This will help us to know where cameras are in relation to where a crime happens. Hopefully what it does is give us the knowledge that if crimes happen nearby where a neighbor is registered, we can quickly see whose registered and ultimately that helps us identify suspects,” Chief Justin Hoyal said.

The UPD Safe Cam program emulates practices used in jurisdictions across the U.S., and reveals the way modern police work is increasingly reliant on both technology and crowdsourced evidence. Albeit, some worry it may have a whiff of Big Brother, and in the digital age of super-data farming and ambiguous privacy standards the notion of sharing personal data—surveillance footage or otherwise—a disquieting prospect for some. However, Chief Hoyal anticipated privacy concerns and readily ensured the public that this program does not ride rough shod over constitutional privacy interests.

“This program does not so-called ‘tap into the system.’ We don’t ask for access to their personal information system, and we do not continuously monitor systems on behalf of anyone. We ask homeowners to review their own surveillance and then provide us with relevant footage if they so choose.” Hoyal said. “It’s completely voluntary, and participants can opt out at any point in time if they don’t want to participate. If we ask someone for footage, and they tell us they can’t produce it, then that’s the end of the story—we won’t ask them again.”

On its face, the UPD Safe Cam program conveys a sense that residents can promote justice and the due capture of criminals without sacrificing personal privacy. Attitudes toward Safe Cam by some Holladay residents have been initially positive, as many have personal connections to victims of crime or have been victims themselves. 

“I think it sounds like a good idea. It might slow down crime, especially if the community stepped up together, because it would be like a new version of Neighborhood Watch,” said Natalie Young, educator and mother of two.

Although, questions from the council revealed that such a program may entail gray area.

“What if the police learned there was a resident that had relevant video footage on their camera but they declined to produce it? What would happen, will you be able to obtain a warrant for it?” asked Councilmember Matt Durham when the program was revealed to the City Council.

Chief Hoyal responded, “Hypothetically, there’s always that possibility. But unless it was a very severe crime, like a homicide, we’re not going to push the issue.” 

Holladay resident Trent Young expressed agreeable attitudes toward the program, but also admitted to a hint of ambivalence.

“I can’t think of any reason why I would not want to give the police my footage, but if I didn’t want to and they got a warrant and said I have to, that starts to feel like it’s infringing on rights, and makes it a little harder to support. The idea that they can have my camera footage even if I say I don’t want to give it to them certainly makes it a little less comforting.” said Young, a banking administrator.

Others are looking at those cities who’ve already integrated crowdsource-style surveillance into police practice for a glimpse at how such public-private surveillance models might develop. In the city of Detroit, for instance, police have implemented Project Green Light, which draws on 700 cameras from private entities throughout the city. But unlike the UPD program, Detroit police don’t merely use the footage as evidence after crimes, they have begun to contract with entities to provide it on an ongoing basis in order to function as a round-the-clock monitoring system.

Of course, the UPD Safe Cam program is in its infancy and is designed to be cautious of overstepping, which instills confidence in most local residents who want to help police—up to a point.

“I understand there are two ways to look at this, but I’m less concerned about privacy interest than living in a safe neighborhood and helping out the police,” said Brock O’Neill, cancer surgeon and Holladay resident, who nonetheless pointed out there are lines he would draw with regard to cooperation. “We have two security systems, one with a camera and one without. If I can help out with safety I want to, but it would be a deal breaker for me if they were able to access my camera or recorded video without permission.”

In some cities, it isn’t just police that are interested in crowdsourcing surveillance footage. In San Francisco, a millionaire entrepreneur helped set up a database of camera owners and locations, and though the police department now maintains the database, it has since become a source for private citizens to request footage also, including filmmakers and defense attorneys. Although, the police are often granted real-time monitoring access to much of the network, which alarms privacy activist who warn “mission creep” and warrantless surveillance.

Attitudes in the local Holladay community, though, show little skepticism, and trust in the UPD remains relatively strong.

“I know the police have a tough time finding footage at all sometimes. There was a hit-and-run on 4500 South, and they’re looking for footage to find that person. So if this program helps solve crimes like that I’d feel good about participating,” said Natalie Young.