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COUNCIL MEMBERS URGE THE USE OF CAMERAS TO CURB CRIME

Roving surveillance cameras would be installed at crime hot spots throughout the city under a pilot project that is being aggressively pushed by Common Council members.

While the Police Department has yet to give its approval, Chief of Administration Richard A. Ortiz sent strong signals Tuesday that law enforcers are willing to experiment with the concept. He told the Council's Finance Committee his department will perform a comprehensive analysis to make sure the use of cameras is "done right."

While Council members said they have no objection to a careful study, they emphasized that they want to see speedy implementation of a program that has solid support from a majority of lawmakers. Bonnie E. Russell of the University District said there's a need to find new ways to curb crime.

"My residents are panicking right now, which makes me panic," she said during a two-hour meeting that dealt with a number of police-related issues.

Cameras strategically placed in trouble spots could help ease many problems, Council members claimed. Masten Council Member Antoine M. Thompson and South Council Member James D. Griffin are sponsoring a resolution promoting the benefits of cameras, noting that many other cities are using surveillance devices in high-crime areas.

Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. represents the Niagara District, where cameras have been operating along the Grant-Ferry business strip since 1999. He believes expanding their use could help close down drug houses and properties where prostitution is rampant.

Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana thinks cameras could help cut crime outside some problem businesses, including delicatessens. Majority Leader Marc A. Coppola of the Delaware District thinks the cameras could be effective tools in nabbing illegal dumpers and slapping them with hefty fines. "You catch 10 people, and that will pay for the cameras," said Coppola.

Some Council members want to use federal drug asset forfeiture funds to finance the high-tech digital cameras. The cost of some models range from $1,400 to $3,000. Officials are trying to determine how many cameras would be needed for the initial phase.

"I don't want to nickel-and-dime this thing," said Fontana. "We need to adequately fund the program."

Finance Committee Chairman Brian C. Davis of the Ellicott District suggested starting out with nine cameras -- one for each Council district. Lawmakers said the devices should be extremely mobile -- easy to install and to move around as public safety needs change. Ortiz stressed the importance of making sure cameras are placed in spots where they will do the most good. He said an effective monitoring system must also be devised, noting that having a proper support network is just as critical as having the equipment.

Ortiz also cautioned people against assuming that cameras will automatically cut crime, claiming the surveillance devices along Grant Street only shifted problems into other areas. "The criminal element moved to the side streets," he said.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Lenora B. Foote said she doesn't envision any legal hurdles since municipalities have the right to use surveillance devices in public places.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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