Proposed video surveillance cameras that members of the Riverhead Business Improvement District believe could enhance security and prevent vandalism downtown has civil rights advocates saying the public's privacy may be at risk.
According to Ray Pickersgill, president of the BID and owner of the in downtown Riverhead, representatives of Next Level Vision and Sound of Holbrook recently demonstrated how a video surveillance camera could change the landscape in town.
The renewed calls for cameras come after a rash of graffiti incidents, which have included signs of MS-13, a global gang, and several other tags on buildings downtown.
Pickersgill said Next Level Vision and Sound is one of a number of companies that have made presentations recently; the BID will send out requests for proposals soon. Next Level’s price, approximately $30,000 to $40,000, is much lower than estimates of up to $70,000 put forth by other companies, he added.
Pickersgill said such a system would encompass the entire parking lot along the Peconic River waterfront, including the boardwalk and Grangebel Park. Panoramic wireless cameras would be installed, with a main unit in the storage room of a public restroom along the water.
The equipment, Pickersgill said, would be locked up for safety, but available to the Riverhead Town police department as needed in a crime scene investigation.
“The beauty of this is with a code, you can actually view the tapes online,” Pickersgill said.
But not everyone believes the cameras are a positive.
Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while video surveillance systems are not a violation of individual rights, “they raise privacy concerns.”
Contrary to public opinion, Sinha said, such systems “don’t deter crime. They just push it away into areas we can’t see.”
Pickersgill said the cameras would be affixed to light poles along the boardwalk and in the parking lot, with one affixed above the public bathroom. “We want to get all angles,” Pickersgill added, with alleyways also included in the surveillance area.
Primary reasons for the cameras would be to provide residents with a sense of security and “eliminate some crime,” Pickersgill said. Vandalism has been an issue along the waterfront, he added. And, with the online capability, the system could also be used to promote waterfront events. “Anybody could go online and see what’s happening,” Pickersgill said. The goal is to have the cameras installed by Memorial Day.
And, Pickersgill added, the BID, made up of business owners - as well as the parking district, which are two separate taxing entities - will fund the cost of the cameras. “No public tax money,” he said, will be utilized.
Sinha said that studies indicate surveillance cameras are not effective in preventing crime, regardless of who's paying.
The ACLU, Sinha said, has concerns regarding the rules and procedures regarding the retention of the videotape.
“Who will have access?” he asked. “What are the protections against misappropriation and misuse?”
Sinha cited Suffolk County legislation proposed last year that would have called for centers in which volunteers would watch live video feeds of neighborhoods, “looking out for suspicious activity. While I think the idea was well intentioned, people watching each other is not the way to go about it,” Sinha said.
Such surveillance deters activity of all kinds, he said.
“We don’t think these cameras are worth the money or the constitutional concerns,” he said. “We all want safer streets, but we have tools that don’t necessarily raise privacy concerns, such as providing police with better supplies. If we leave it to cameras, we’re just going to end up in a Big Brother type situation. We don’t want that.”
Pickersgill responded to the ACLU by saying the cameras would be installed in a public place. “We’re not putting cameras in people’s bedrooms.”
Riverhead Town police had initially expressed concerns about the need for constant monitoring, but the force is now on board, he added.
And Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter — who as supervisor doubles as police commissioner — agreed, saying the police department would be happy to have the videos to consult. “I think it’s a good idea and the police department will welcome it.”
Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller did welcome it. In a phone interview he said to those concerned about privacy: "Don't do anything wrong. If you're not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about."
Walter added it was “fantastic” the BID had been able to find competitive pricing. The new BID has been proactive in Riverhead’s recent revitalization, he said. “It’s just heartwarming how much the BID has done for downtown. This is just another example and I look forward to supporting it – it’s going to help with everyone feeling safe downtown.”
John Mantzopoulos, owner of on Main Street, agreed, saying the cameras would protect business owners and residents, but also the waterfront property, from vandalism.
As for claims of privacy invasion, Mantzopoulos believes “for the most part, the public is misinformed.”
The security would help in instances ranging from fender-benders to robbery, he said. “It works in small cases and the most severe crimes. No town or city is immune from crime today.”
The security cameras, Mantzopoulos added, “are a win-win.”
Ed Tuccio, owner of , has had cameras on his property for years; police have utilized them in the past.
“They’re a good idea,” he said. “Not that it’s a necessity, but it’s today’s world, and people feel more secure when there are cameras there.”