By Canice Leung
Closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras turned their unblinking eyes towards Toronto’s busiest street this holiday season, and are now helping police investigate a Dec. 30 shooting at the intersection of Yonge and Gould streets.
The three cameras were given a three week trial and ran along Yonge Street at Dundas, Gould and Gerrard streets in late December. They were removed on Monday morning.
Media, local business owners and Torontonians had been pushing for increased safety following a fatal Boxing Day shooting in 2005, when 15-year-old Jane Creba was killed. Police say the Dec. 30 incident outside Sam the Record Man left a 15-year-old boy with a non-fatal gunshot wound. With the help of the CCTV camera footage, they hope to identify the suspect.
In a press release on Dec. 14, acting chief Kim Derry said the cameras had two purposes: “Deter those who may be considering committing crime, and provide evidence to identify, arrest and charge those who choose to commit crime.” While private-sector cameras and government-operated CCTVs are commonly found across Canada, these are the first police-operated cameras in Toronto.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario (IPC/O) says Toronto police have been compliant with their guidelines, which limits what can be filmed, the nature of the camera’s presence, and how long footage is kept. The police website states that citizen privacy “is of paramount concern to the Toronto Police Services,” and that CCTV will be used in “specific areas within our communities that are experiencing elevated levels of crime . . . and have not responded to other ongoing strategies.”
University campuses like Ryerson fall under the same privacy guidelines as the Yonge Street sidewalk. This means, the privacy someone could expect while eating in the cafeteria is little more than on the street corner. Almost 200 cameras are pointed at the Ryerson population, says Ryerson security and emergency services manager Lawrence Robinson. Cameras are posted at street level on Gould and Church streets, outdoors, hallways, building entrances, and in other public areas on campus.
And unlike the three-day rollover of the police cameras, Ryerson footage is stored for a year. Robinson declined to reveal the exact locations of surveillance cameras, citing them as “potential safety and security concerns.”
The cameras have been successful in solving crimes in the past, he says, citing a serial car thief who was identified from parking garage footage.
For some Ryerson students, being videotaped at school is no concern. Rohail Malik, a third-year information and technology management student says “you can’t expect privacy at school, it’s a public place. The only place that’s private is in your own home.” Lara Yousef, a first year social work student, never noticed the 200 cameras that watch her every day, but welcomes them.
When school violence like last fall’s Dawson College shooting in Montreal happens, she says it’s better to “be watched and be protected, than not.” Despite the close proximity, criminal activity on Yonge Street is not a Ryerson security matter. And Robinson could not confirm any consultation with Toronto police before the cameras went up. CCTV came to Yonge Street at the insistence of local business association Yonge Street Business Improvement Area.
Only “people who have something to hide may be concerned with being on camera,” said James Robinson, no relation to Lawrence Robinson.
As executive director of the group, he represents approximately 2,000 local businesses and property owners. Even so, he admits business development has grown with the opening of several chain stores, despite the perceived rise in gun violence. Early evidence from both the Dec. 30 shooting and an earlier incident in November indicate gang involvement. Neither the Toronto police or the Yonge Street business association would comment on Yonge Street’s problems of gang-related gun violence.
No figures on the effectiveness of the cameras have been released, but some already see the trial run as a success. The Yonge Street Business Improvement Area, a unanimous supporter of the project, is willing to finance a one-year CCTV program in the busy shopping district. Following the program’s successful inclusion, Dalton McGuinty said Monday he hopes the cameras are turned back on, but would offer no additional funding to the $2-million already pledged for the program in October 2006.
The quick return on results from Dec. 30 could only signal the beginning of a long-term project to put video surveillance in high-crime neighbourhoods across the city.
Which means that across campus and around Toronto, the unblinking eye could be here to stay.