A not-so-private eye

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Orange Avenue business owners, your hope for more security has been answered -- sort of.

Revelers who want to hit downtown without running past a gauntlet of cops -- don't be fooled by the absence of uniformed patrollers.

City officials this month will put up four video cameras on Orange Avenue and Pine Street that are meant to help Orlando police watch sidewalk and street traffic for suspicious behavior.

The cameras will be monitored by dispatchers two blocks away in the West Washington Street substation, who will alert bike cops patrolling downtown.

Before the Big Brother comments begin, there's one more aspect to the surveillance system that's likely to entice even more Orwellian comparisons: Computer scientists at the University of Central Florida are writing a software program that will allow a computer to monitor the police cameras and issue brief, periodic descriptions to the dispatcher. That means the computer -- and not a pair of human eyes -- will be the initial judge of something amiss or untoward. (Granted, that task would be fairly easy, and a lot less threatening, if the description were limited to such things as "pedestrian down" or "persons fighting.")

The idea is to assist police officers with the weary task of watching video monitors, which have a tendency to lull observers into complacency. "A peaceful street gets boring pretty quickly," says Raymond B. Surette, a UCF criminology professor.

Surette is part of a UCF contingent that stepped in when the city failed to obtain $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice last year for a camera system along Orange Avenue. The group will work with a much smaller budget, $40,000, which will be spent on equipment and writing the computer code.

Though many cities are beginning to look at cameras as a way to enhance police protection -- Europe, especially England, has become smitten with video monitoring -- civil libertarians have long opposed the idea.

"I don't like it," says Alan Lunin of the Central Florida ACLU. "It's a Big Brother kind of thing. But it's not illegal."

Lunin says the best the ACLU can do is argue that police cameras shouldn't zoom in or pan around so that innocent bystanders -- say, two lovers married to different spouses -- aren't exposed on film. And police officers should be warned that transgressions of privacy won't be tolerated.

In fact, administrators of the Downtown Project (as it's become known) are aware of the privacy concerns that naturally ensue whenever the government begins spying on its citizens. Surette points out that none of the four cameras will be able to zoom, pan or record sounds. In addition, tapes will be recycled after 72 hours so that the police department doesn't create a video catalog of car wrecks and pedestrian accidents at the intersection. "That keeps police out of civil lawsuits," Surette says.

Even so, not everyone is happy that cameras will begin filming downtown pedestrians. And not because they're concerned about privacy issues, but because they want cameras in their own part of Orlando.

Phil Cowherd is a Parramore property owner who recently purchased a multi-use office building on Westmoreland Street near the crack-selling hotbeds of Arlington and Concord streets. Last year, after he heard that OPD was looking for money for downtown cameras, Cowherd lobbied Police Chief Jerry Demings to install video equipment on Westmore-land. Cowherd says he even promised to pay for the cameras.

Demings shot back a letter saying there was no "empirical data" that the cameras would work in residential areas.

That response has annoyed Cowherd, who argues that the location of the downtown cameras has more to do with race and class distinction than with policing.

"It was an economic decision to make citizens feel more comfortable on Orange Avenue," Cowherd says. "It makes Orange Avenue more valuable and productive. [City leaders] have no interest in doing that in Parramore."

Capt. Mike Holloway, the commander of OPD's central division, disputes that claim, saying residents are not likely to tolerate cameras in their neighborhoods. "The chief is adamantly opposed to placing cameras in a residential area," says Holloway, who selected the Orange and Pine location because it was a half-block from UCF's downtown building. "There's more than a reasonable expectation of privacy in a residential area."

In any event, the software being developed by the UCF Computer Vision Lab can't detect the kind of crime Cowherd is hoping to eliminate. The software is still primitive; it won't do anything except notice pedestrians when it goes online in late February.

Eventually programmers hope the software will determine when a building is on fire, combatants are in a fight or a person is prostrate.

The motions involved in selling crack or soliciting a hooker are, as yet, too subtle for a computer program to detect.

"It's not like Robocop," says Sohaib Khan, a UCF grad student who has worked on some of the other projects the Computer Vision Lab recently has completed. "What is hard for [programmers] might be trivial for a person ... Human vision is so much more advanced."

The programmers are up against a host of variables they haven't encountered in a controlled-lab environment: cloudy and rainy conditions, multiple cameras and a large number of pedestrians. Programmers must account for these for their software to be successful.

Still, Khan, who is not actually working on the Downtown Project, is aware of the Big Brother overtones that shroud his kind of work. He doesn't dismiss them. But he points out the positive aspect of visual-motion software. It doesn't, for example, profile minorities. Nor does it announce guilt or innocence. The final determination of criminal behavior still is left to a cop.

Like the properties of physics, computer science can be used in a helpful or hurtful way, programmers argue. One of the lab's undergraduate students, Richard Russo, has built a program that can tell whether a fast-food employee is making a sandwich in accordance with predetermined guidelines -- first turkey, then tomato, then lettuce, for instance.

The program can eventually be used to collect data in the fast-food industry -- not necessarily to fire rogue employees, but to find better ways to prepare a lunchtime meal. "Maybe when you put more pickles on, people buy more sandwiches," Russo offers optimistically. (Still, just try telling that to the worker who is let go.)

Part of UCF's commitment to the Downtown Project will be to collect crime data and determine the public's perception before and after the cameras go up. Charles Otto is a doctoral candidate in public affairs who began surveying passers-by on Orange Avenue last week. Otto's hunch, based on a number of European studies, is that Orlando residents will soon become as comfortable with the cameras as they are traveling through airport security.

"No one minds walking through the metal detector any more," Otto says.

So the cameras go up, the public is content, and crime as we know it is gone forever?

Not quite. According to Surette, the UCF criminology professor, the cameras won't eliminate crime. They just "displace" it, meaning, if theory holds true, that Parramore will soon become even seedier. "Crime gets pushed more into poorer neighborhoods," Surette explains. "That's one of the social concerns we have. As part of our evaluation, we will look at that."

The social concern for many in the late-night crowd is what happens to them once OPD beefs up its police presence. Robert Petersen is a 36-year-old downtown resident who has lately gained the interest of some of the city's bicycle officers. By his own estimation, Petersen has been detained by police six times in the last three months -- presumably because he wears long hair. The last time, two weeks ago, he passed a couple of bike cops as he rode down Orange Avenue toward Cool World, a downtown avant-garde gift shop.

Petersen, who was also on a bike, nodded at the two officers as he passed them. When he looked back, the cops were in hot pursuit. Petersen tried to explain that he'd been detained without cause several times lately, but one of the cops screamed, "Then don't come down here," Petersen says.

Then they wrote him a ticket for failing to have a headlight on his bike.

Petersen says cameras will make police even more aggressive. "It's another toy for them. There's not enough business down here to keep them busy. It's not like it's a packed city street."

He continues: "If they're going to put [cameras] anywhere, then put them under I-4. Every month it seems like there's a shooting or stabbing in the parking lot. That kind of stuff is not happening on Orange Avenue."

The fact that police want cameras on Orange points to one thing, Petersen says. The city is fed up with the late-night club crowd and is responding in the same heavy-handed manner it has used to corral panhandlers, give the bum's rush to tattoo shops and cap closing time at 2 a.m. The message to young people: go away.

"If there's fewer people, there's fewer problems," Petersen says.

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