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Big Brother to Funky Town? Street Cameras Considered

April 30, 2002
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Big Brother to Funky Town? Street Cameras Considered

by Michael Hill, Associated Press

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. (AP) - From shop windows displaying tie-dyed T-shirts to frizzy-haired college students ambling down Main Street, it looks like this college town never totally left the '60s.

But now village officials are thinking of making a very un-Aquarian addition to downtown: four to five surveillance cameras.

Some residents say they're concerned about the possible introduction of "Big Brother" to their quaint downtown, which is a stone's throw from the State University of New York at New Paltz. But local officials hope cameras would end a spate of late night scuffles and broken windows in this Hudson Valley village.

"It's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," said Mayor Thomas Nyquist. "It's a nice quiet sort of New Englandish type of community during the daytime, but from about 11 o'clock at night until 4 in the morning, it can be a very rowdy place."

A number of village shop owners have complained about broken windows. Tom Gogolski, owner of Manny's Art Supplies, said he replaced five windows at $200 a piece last year.

"I have another broken one right now," he said, "that's not uncommon around here."

Nyquist blames "unsavory characters" from neighboring areas drawn to New Paltz' bar scene. He said village officials are collecting information about a surveillance system and hope to make a decision soon. Nyquist said they are still open to other options.

Surveillance cameras are a prevalent, if little noticed, part of contemporary life. It is estimated that more than a million cameras watch over offices, buses, train stations and shops around the nation. Cities from Mobile, Ala., to Jersey City, N.J., employ surveillance systems. Dave Saddler of the Security Industry Association, a trade group, said even smaller communities are turning to them.

Just last month, officials in State College, Pa. - a college town like New Paltz - approved the installation of video cameras after three downtown riots in the last four years.

And across the Hudson River from New Paltz, city police in Poughkeepsie have been watching downtown streets for five years through high-perched cameras that can rotate and zoom.

Capt. Steven Minard said the cameras serve the dual purpose of discouraging criminal acts and providing information to police headed to crime scenes. Police responding to calls will even use cameras to avoid traffic jams, he said.

"Seconds can make a large difference in many instances," Minard said.

Camera systems can be cheaper than additional beat cops since the video images can be viewed by a desk officer. Nyquist said the $25,000 to $30,000 it would take to purchase four or five cameras for New Paltz would be cheaper than new hires.

Still, others in New Paltz see surveillance cameras as an odd fit for town with a reputation for being liberal and open.

"Any time you get semi-adolescent people together, you're going to have problems," community college student Danielle Emerson said this week as she chatted with friends at Starbucks. "But New Paltz is a safe town. It's a hippie town!"

Stephen Bergstein, a resident and civil rights attorney, said while the idea appears legal, it's still disquieting. He asks: What are they going to do with the information?

"People, I don't think, would feel comfortable looking up and seeing the red light of the camera focused right on them, even if you know in your heart you're not doing anything wrong," he said.

Nyquist said he realizes some people would see street cameras as an intrusion. But he said they would likely only be turned on after 11 p.m., when they are most needed.

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