Eyes Over Venice
New city security cameras will bring 24-hour police surveillance to the boardwalk
By Claire Kaufman and Joe Piasecki
“Your picture has been taken.
“You are in a restricted area.
“Please leave the premises immediately.”
Try to set up a picnic at the Venice Skate Park after 9 p.m. and you may encounter a booming electronic voice from somewhere in the dark. The message: get lost.
And the machine really does take your picture.
In late March, the Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks installed six solar-powered cameras and the accompanying recording to discourage entry to the boardwalk-adjacent skate park after posted dawn-to-dusk hours. The setup is intended to discourage trespassers and create a photographic record for investigators in case of vandalism, graffiti or another crime occurring.
“Recreation and Parks installed the taking of the picture as a test,” said LAPD Pacific Division Capt. Brian Johnson, adding that similar systems have proven useful at other locations in the city. “I think it has been a positive deterrent.”
A second deployment of security cameras headed to the Venice boardwalk later this year takes things a step significantly further: real-time, ‘round-the-clock LAPD surveillance intended to stop crime both as and before it happens.
In the wake of several well-publicized outbursts of violence at the beach — a driver mowing down pedestrians on the boardwalk last August, a restaurant worker stabbed to death a few blocks east on Washington Boulevard in November, a homeless man beaten with a folding chair in December, crowds throwing bottles at police officers attempting to shut down the Venice Beach Drum Circle in March, a double stabbing near Windward Avenue in April — city officials plan to install a network of 20 LAPD surveillance cameras spanning the length of Ocean Front Walk that would be actively monitored by officers at the Pacific Division’s Venice Beach Substation.
The move comes as part of a larger package of public safety measures being rolled out by L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who has called Ocean Front Walk “an apocalyptic scene” that breeds chaos and rampant quality of life issues.
“Venice Beach and the surrounding neighborhood is a tourist attraction, but it also a residential neighborhood and a business district — and it too often is held hostage by rowdy punks and criminals who manipulate vending rules and laws meant to protect the homeless to create their own sketchy environment and campground. It is not acceptable,” Bonin wrote at argonautnews.com about his pledge to restore order to the boardwalk after personally handling the overnight cleanup of a mattress that had been set on fire near Windward.
‘A force multiplier’
Though it may be new for historically freewheeling Venice Beach, the LAPD has used security cameras to actively keep an eye on public safety trouble spots for about a decade.
Los Angeles police currently operate approximately 300 cameras in areas such as downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, South L.A. and various public housing developments, said Sgt. Dan Gomez of the LAPD’s Tactical Technology Section. And that’s in addition to another 300 or so closed-circuit cameras deployed at public buildings such as L.A. City Hall, he said.
In Santa Monica, meanwhile, police also use security cameras to monitor areas in and around the Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Pier, SMPD Sgt. Rudy Camarena said.
Not that any of this is some big secret. Camera deployments are frequently trumpeted in press conferences, and Gomez said the vast majority of LAPD cameras are easily visible to the public.
“None of them are covert. You can look up and see them. They’re not hidden in any way, shape or form,” Gomez said of the cameras planned for Venice.
Officers assigned to camera monitoring duties will receive special training on how to use the equipment, but the rest relies on old-fashioned police-work.
“We utilize the cameras like looking through the window of a police car. Whether out on their beat or looking through a camera, you still have to have probable cause, reasonable suspicion [to take action],” Gomez said.
The LAPD’s track record with cameras has not been perfect. An inspector general report this week found placement of cameras inside police stations to be inadequate, and in late 2011 the LA Times reported that most of the LAPD’s downtown surveillance cameras hadn’t been working for two years.
Dave Maass, a spokesman for privacy and technology access advocates the Electronic Freedom Foundation, said those concerned about civil liberties have plenty of other misgivings about what happens when the cameras are rolling.
“Cameras in any place where there’s First Amendment activity raises concerns that there could be a chilling effect if police are using footage to create profiles,” Maass said. “There are cops who do good things, but there is also a real possibility there might be potential to abuse these things. When you have a camera system like this, the police need to put stringent policies in place regarding circumstances of access, how long recordings are stored, how they can be shared and whether audits are done to make sure they are being accessed properly.”
Gomez said the cameras can only be accessed by trained officers and that footage is typically stored for 30 to 45 days, unless saved as evidence related to an arrest, in which case the timeline extends to a minimum of five years. Footage may be shared with other law enforcement agencies on a case-by-case basis, “no different than other kinds of evidence.” The LAPD also conducts audits to ensure cameras are being used properly, he said.
“Cameras in general act as a force multiplier,” Gomez said. “Technology on its own does not reduce crime, but having the technology, having the officers in a particular area, other crime reduction strategies such as community involvement … it’s a combination of all those things that make for success.”
Privacy in public?
Following the death of an Italian tourist during the vehicular rampage on the boardwalk, Bonin proposed a series of public infrastructure improvements for Ocean Front Walk, prompting a city report that contemplated retractable traffic barriers, lighting improvements and increased police patrols in addition to cameras.
So far, the LAPD has expanded bike patrols and the city has converted more than 40 of 152 outdoor lights along the boardwalk to brighter and more energy-efficient LED lights. Some new traffic barriers have also gone up, but Bonin hopes to add bike racks and public art installations that would have the same effect.
“This is comprehensive, and it requires and approach that is as diverse, unique and special as Venice is,” said Bonin spokesman David Graham-Caso, who said the councilman is also working to establish programing — a winter ice rink, perhaps — to encourage positive activities on the beach.
Community programming, he said “pushes out the bad and lets in the good — it’s about how to be creative in turning the page at the beach.”
The city is obtaining its 20 cameras through a donation from Samsung pending approval of the gift by the L.A. City Council, Graham-Caso said.
The cost of maintaining and operating the cameras and potential funding sources are still in the process of being identified, said LAPD Chief Information Officer Maggie Goodrich.
The idea of funding a city security camera network on the boardwalk met resistance from the Venice Neighborhood Council, both several years ago and earlier this year.
“The Venice Neighborhood Council did not vote to have the city pay for cameras, but rather to have more feet on the ground,” said former council President Linda Lucks.
For some on the council, “Cameras implied an invasion of privacy and a police maneuver against the homeless,” said Ira Koslow, a neighborhood council member who lives near the boardwalk.
LAPD officers routinely use footage from security cameras maintained by boardwalk businesses after a crime occurs.
“It is all about evidentiary surveillance. They are used after the fact, after someone has been robbed, to find the person who did it,” said Daniel Samakow, co-owner of Danny’s Venice and James’ Beach, who maintains security cameras at his businesses.
Going forward, “The issue is improving the amount of police coverage relative to a growing amount of visitors,” said Samakow, a former co-chair of the neighborhood council’s Ocean Front Walk Committee.
Tom Elliott, owner of the Venice Ale House and a current co-chair of the Ocean Front Walk Committee, said he was initially against active police surveillance on the boardwalk — that is until considering the relatively low expectation of privacy that currently exists in one of the region’s most popular hangouts.
“It’s touchy. I have the same feelings a lot of people do about the use of public funds for cameras. On one hand, it feels a little like Big Brother, a little like spying. After I gave it some thought and heard the arguments on both sides, there’s not much that’s private about being in a public space on a public beach with millions of people around you,” Elliott said.
“That doesn’t mean that someone out walking their dog at night should get thrown in jail,” he continued, but “once everybody realizes they’re on camera, the bad guys might be less inclined to stab somebody.”