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EDITORIAL: Watching the watchers

Charlottetown Police Deputy Chief Brad MacConnell says the E-Watch system is helping to reduce crime in Charlottetown.
Charlottetown Police Deputy Chief Brad MacConnell says the E-Watch system is helping to reduce crime in Charlottetown. - Jim Day

There once was a time when a significant increase in electronic surveillance would have elicited a strong outcry from a city’s residents over concerns of privacy or abuse of authority.

While a recent article about the growing number of Charlottetown Police Services’ E-Watch cameras did see some of that sentiment online, the criticism was minimal.

It’s difficult to say whether this is due to an increased awareness that random, violent attacks in public places have been prevalent across the globe in recent years, or a more general sense that our lives are more photographed and filmed in our connected world than ever before.

Police installed the first E-Watch in 2015, and the number of the wireless video cameras has since increased to 61. The cameras are in public places in the downtown core, along the waterfront, near critical infrastructure and high-traffic areas.

A sponsor, usually a local business or corporation, pays $5,000 to have a camera placed outside their location. Most businesses The Guardian spoke with said they’ve seen near immediate declines in the number of security calls, shoplifting cases and loitering since installing the cameras.

Related: Growing number of E-Watch cameras aims to deter crime in P.E.I.'s capital city

Police have also seen investigative value in the cameras, while contending that they increase the public’s sense of safety.

The idea seems to reflect what many individuals in the province are doing to protect their personal property. Many residents have installed outdoor and indoor cameras as part of their home security systems, while more and more drivers use dashboard cameras that may come in handy for insurance claims in the event of an accident.

In many ways, these police cameras are not an unexpected – or even unwelcome – safety precaution for some. As the adage goes, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.

There are those calling for caution with this growth of police watchfulness. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association told us there is no overwhelming evidence that cameras are an effective deterrent to crime, and it has concerns about the erosion of privacy.

The association says the public should be given the opportunity to offer input and concerns about how the cameras are used.

These are important concerns to be sure, and we agree that a system to police the police is necessary to protect our privacy with such widespread surveillance in place.

The police department says recordings are only saved for 14 days and the video feed isn’t monitored constantly — only when a crime is reported or if it assists the investigation of a possible crime in progress.

These are all positives assurances, so long as Charlottetown Police Services is transparent with the public about the E-Watch program’s use and results.

As it stands, let’s embrace the use of this equipment as a positive for public safety, but remain cognizant that such surveillance has the potential to be both positive and negative.

They’ll be watching us, but we’ll also keep a close eye on them.

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