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Dallas police have ‘eyes in the sky’ with new surveillance cameras

City officials no longer have to sell people that the cameras, located in public areas, are not meant to invade privacy

By Tristan Hallman
he Dallas Morning News

DALLAS A blighted intersection off Malcolm X Boulevard in South Dallas is about to get at least one state-of-the-art addition: a Dallas police surveillance camera.

But George Rogers, who has run the Tyre Shop near Opportunity Park in South Dallas for 28 years, isn’t sure he’s ready for his close-up.

“It’s good and bad,” he said. “It will curtail a lot of criminal activity. But it’s an invasion.”

Rogers said he ultimately thinks the good will outweigh the new camera’s Big Brother-esque bad. The area directly around his shop is “usually pretty calm,” but there is some crime down the street near the boarded-up homes and businesses buried beneath burglar bars.

That area of South Dallas — near Scyene Road and Elsie Faye Heggins Street — will be one of nine crime hotspots in the city to get 10 of the latest round of 90 surveillance cameras. And when the new eyes in the sky go up, the Dallas Police Department’s electronic surveillance of the city will have effectively doubled over the last three years.

“These surveillance cameras — they provide us more eyes in areas we can’t put an officer out there 24 hours a day,” said Maj. Elaine Page, who commands the technology unit.

The department also will add 18 new license plate readers to the 30 it already has. The tool scans and tracks license plates and allows officers to find stolen cars and drivers with outstanding warrants without lifting a finger. Eight will go on poles and 10 more will be placed in patrol cars.

Combined, the cameras and license plate readers have already helped police make hundreds of arrests the last few years, Page said. And she said she believes the gadgets will continue to be a priority even as the public’s new-toy attention span shifts toward body cameras.

Downtown Epicenter
The new surveillance cameras will mean the police department will have 347 total. The tech tools are clustered in downtown, Uptown and the city’s top crime hotspots, such as Ross and Bennett avenues in Old East Dallas.

Temporary civilian workers and officers on light duty monitor the camera feeds. Part-time retired cops used to do so, but city officials laid them off last year, because of a little-known provision in federal health care law that would have cost the city a fortune.

Detectives can also go back and watch tape to try to aid their investigations. For instance, they can see if their suspect was in an area at a certain time.

“It’s both proactive and reactive,” Page said.

One of the 10 new cameras in Rogers’ area will go up near some apartments near Fair Park that had once turned into a drug-dealing headquarters.

Mark Murrell, a city community prosecutor who has helped foster crime watch groups in the area, said crime will be deterred by active residents and police cameras.

“Those things, coupled together, makes it a perfect world,” he said.

The other 80 cameras will be posted near eight other hotspots across Dallas.

The areas were selected in 2013, and the cameras were supposed to be installed on poles last year. But Page said the camera company had technical difficulties and delayed the rollout.

$1M Bill For City
The city will foot the $1 million bill for the cameras this year. When the cameras first began to be posted, Safer Dallas, a public safety booster group, gave the city millions of dollars to get them up and running.

Safer Dallas President Gary Griffith said the cameras were an immediate success. And city officials no longer have to sell people that the cameras, located in public areas, are not meant to invade privacy.

“As the years moved forward, they were like body cameras,” said Griffith, a former City Council member. “Most people, even if they were initially apprehensive about it, have come around to believe that if used properly and managed properly, they could be an important public safety tool.”

At the Lake Highlands intersection of Abrams Road and Royal Lane, E-Z Shop vice president Jabbar Tayyab said he is never bothered by the criminals in the area — who he said mainly target the cluster of apartments nearby — because he has been there for years and they know to leave them alone.

But Tayyab, who sat behind the thick glass of a check-cashing window with a camera pointed squarely at customers, said the police cameras are a welcome addition.

“It’s a necessity to protect the area,” he said.

Some people are still a little apprehensive, though. Jessie Thomas, who frequents a beauty shop and a nail salon by Royal and Abrams, said having the cameras makes her feel “more paranoid.”

But, she said, the “way things have changed, you almost need” the cameras everywhere.

“Businesses are so vulnerable,” Thomas said. “It’s a good idea — not that I like being on camera.”

AT A GLANCE: How crime rates at 9 hotspots faring

These 9 Dallas police hotspots are set to get 10 cameras each in an effort to reduce crime, but some have already seen their numbers fall this year:

• Elsie Faye Heggins and Scyene Streets in South Dallas (-1 percent)

• Royal Lane and Skillman Street (+1 percent)

• Hampton Road and Ledbetter Drive near Red Bird (+33 percent)

• S. Buckner Boulevard and Samuell Boulevard (+8 percent)

• Lemmon Avenue and Wycliff Avenue in Oak Lawn (-13 percent)

• W. Spring Valley Road and Maham Road (-9 percent)

• Forest Lane and Dennis Road (-1 percent)

• Lake June Road and Buckner Boulevard (-13 percent)

• Julius Schepps Freeway and Central Expressway (+6.8 percent)

Copyright 2015 The Dallas Morning News