Tuesday, March 28, 2006

80 Cameras Watch Tiny Alaska Town

(CBS/AP) Dillingham is a quiet fishing village in southwest Alaska that's home to 2,400 people and not a single streetlight.

What it does have, however, is 80 surveillance cameras focused on the port and the town, courtesy of a $202,000 Homeland Security federal grant.

Dillingham Police Chief Richard Thompson said the cameras could stop terrorism in Southwest Alaska someday. More to the point, they may also put an end to the drinking, deaths and drug deals that go down at the port every summer when the town fills up with commercial fishermen.

If the system prevents even one death, Thompson said, “I don’t care what’s said about me.”

But some people are outraged. The only thing being captured by the cameras, they said, are their civil liberties.

“I think it’s an invasion of privacy,” said Freeman Roberts, a barge captain. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of looking at people.”

A quiet city like Dillingham doesn’t need one camera for every 30 people, said Tim Smeekins.

“There are no jihadist sockeyes swimming into our bay, no militant moose, no bomb-bearing belugas,” he said.

Thompson said the public opposition in Dillingham comes from a misunderstanding. The cameras, all of which won’t be fully operational until summer, take still pictures every 15 minutes. They have no audio. The images will be stored only if there is a crime, he said.

The chief said that if weapons are ever transported through Dillingham on large freighters traveling to Anchorage or Seattle, “it might someday be useful to know which ship dropped that cargo off or picked it up.”

The cameras are mostly aimed at the port, the chief said. About three dozen cameras watch from poles there. Another seven gaze at the harbor from City Hall. Some with dual lenses, critics say, resemble storm trooper helmets from Star Wars.

Donna Shade, owner of the Cafe Hillside in Dillingham, said she’s sure Thompson has good intentions, but argues the surveillance cuts into the freedom that defines rural Alaska.

“What happens is all of a sudden a community becomes untrustworthy, and that I find troubling,” she said.

Smeekins and other critics are circulating a petition demanding the cameras come down. More than 200 area residents have signed, he said. Critics hope to put the question on the local ballot this fall.


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