Surveillance Cameras: Legit Cop Tool Or Orwellian?


St. Peters, Mo., uses five cameras mounted outside to look up and down busy roadways; five more will be installed next year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says. A joystick and television monitors inside the police station allow dispatchers to pan across parking lots to see people exiting stores. “There have been a lot of times we’ve witnessed things and been able to get additional information for the officers,” said dispatcher Cindy Demariano, demonstrating the cameras’ capabilities by looking through windows at a Denny’s restaurant.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has 14 cameras in the St. Louis metro area, used for watching traffic on highways and interstates. The public can see what those cameras see at

In St. Peters, the cameras watch from poles as tall as 30 feet. “Most people don’t know they’re there,” St. Peters Traffic Coordinator Steve Helmholt said. By far, St. Peters is the most monitored city in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Sometimes they help with basic assessments of accident scenes before rescue workers arrive, and a few times police have used them to help secure banks after robbery calls by zooming in on the exits. They spot solicitors asking for money on interchanges and have witnessed a handful of road rage incidents.

When Denny’s has its shades up, dispatchers can see customers inside ordering from the menu. Sunny Scholtz, restaurant manager, said she wonders who’s watching. “That is kind of creepy thinking about the little eye in the sky,” she said. Neil Richards, a law professor and expert in privacy at Washington University, is bothered by the idea of giving police access to these traffic cameras. He said there’s a difference between a police officer watching from a police car versus zooming in on someone from the police station. “The type of intrusion that government can have can be frightening,” he said. “These cameras are pretty Orwellian. There really is a case where if you have enough of them, you really could get into a Big Brother situation.”


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