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Real time crime centers, which started in bigger cities, spread across the U.S.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Police departments in major cities have been making use of live camera feeds to fight crime. They collect the information in so-called real-time crime centers. Now some smaller and mid-sized cities say they also need its technology to help with staff shortages. Here's Jahd Khalil with VPM News in Richmond.

JAHD KHALIL, BYLINE: Earlier this summer, Teenora Thurston was walking to a friend and neighbor's house in Gilpin Court, a group of public housing apartments in Northside Richmond. Then she saw a man working on what she thought were solar panels.

TEENORA THURSTON: So I was like, what you doing, sir? He said, I'm putting up cameras.

KHALIL: She's an organizer with Virginia's Legal Aid Justice Center and describes herself as nosey.

THURSTON: I said, we got enough cameras up. He said, well these some different cameras.

KHALIL: These are license plate readers. They're an easy way to track a person's movement. And Richmond plans to incorporate them into an even more powerful network.

WILL PELFREY: The real-time crime center allows for real-time access to information.

KHALIL: Will Pelfrey is a criminal justice professor and consultant for the Richmond Police Department on the real-time crime center.

PELFREY: Imagine all the cameras that are scattered across Richmond. Most red lights have a camera. Lots of toll booths have cameras. And toll booths also have license plate readers.

KHALIL: A real-time crime center brings these, as well as other police tech, into one place. Richmond's plan is to have 109 feet of screens so police could monitor many feeds at the same time. And Richmond PD could tap into other camera networks through agreements with schools, the state government and even private businesses.

PELFREY: Then RPD has thousands of video feeds that they can access at any given moment. These real-time crime centers started almost 20 years ago, typically in bigger cities, but they are spreading across the U.S. to smaller places. And federal COVID aid is a big reason why.

LEVAR STONEY: It would have been pretty difficult to do this without the American Rescue Plan dollars.

KHALIL: Levar Stoney is mayor of Richmond. The city is getting $750,000 in ARPA money to set up their center. Stoney says the city needs one to get tougher on crime.

STONEY: We are, unfortunately, experiencing a roughly 150-officer shortage at the moment. And so, how do you replace individuals who are walking the beat or who are patrolling certain areas? You have to replace that with technology and innovation.

KHALIL: But there are civil liberties concerns. Beryl Lipton is a researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Nationwide, it's counted about 135 real-time crime centers. ARPA has funded new ones in cities like Mesa, Ariz., and Spokane, Wash.

BERYL LIPTON: Technology has really challenged what the average expectation of privacy is, and not in a good way.

KHALIL: She asks, should the police have access to video feeds of your grocery shopping or things like AI technology and facial recognition? This kind of access to public and private space in Richmond should be discussed as the city sets up this program, says Lipton.

LIPTON: And there needs to, at the very least, be a conversation about whether or not a community thinks it is a worthwhile use of millions of tax dollars.

KHALIL: But supporters of real-time crime centers say the technology helps with community trust issues because video instead of witnesses could ID suspects, and reduced police contact means fewer opportunities for bad interactions, they say. However, Thurston, with the Legal Aid Justice Center, is skeptical that the technology can strengthen community police relationships.

THURSTON: It won't go well 'cause it's already a trust issue. They don't walk the neighborhood.

KHALIL: The Richmond Police Department says it's still in the planning stages at the real-time crime center and can't answer yet how far the surveillance network will reach.

For NPR News, I’m Jahd Khalil in Richmond, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jahd Khalil