Police install surveillance camera at Elm and Hanover streets

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A street camera being installed Jan. 8 at Elm and Hanover streets. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

MANCHESTER, NH  — The city moved one step closer to operating a surveillance system on Elm Street with the installation of a sophisticated camera Wednesday at the corner of Elm and Hanover streets.

Vendor PELMAC Industries installed the camera which can zoom in for close-ups and do surveillance in total darkness.  Manchester police originally planned to install three cameras, at a cost of $14,424, but Public Information Officer Heather Hamel said currently there is no plan to put another camera in place.

The video surveillance camera near City Hall, when operational, will have a live feed to the Manchester Police Department’s dispatchers who will monitor them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Hamel, when asked when the camera was expected to begin surveillance, said “soon.”

Police have said in the past they would notify the public when the camera is operating.

Last year, the city was sued by several citizens who argued the cameras will violate their privacy rights and state law.   However, Judge Tina L. Nadeau, presiding in Hillsborough County Superior Court North, ruled against them in the lawsuit defended by the ACLU – New Hampshire.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire which represented the plaintiffs in the case, said no appeal was filed.

He said it was clear in the court order that if the city identifies a motorist using the cameras, it will be committing a crime. With the installation of the camera, Bissonnette said it is  “exceedingly likely that the city will, at some point, engage in such identification and therefore be subject to criminal liability.  Thus, we will be actively monitoring the implementation of these cameras in the event that such identification – which is likely inevitable – occurs.”

The camera is pointed at storefronts and sidewalks where there is no expectation of privacy, Peter Chiesa, a deputy Manchester city solicitor, said at a court hearing last year. He said the city had no intention to record motorists.

The recordings will be retained for two weeks and will be used by police to investigate incidents such as lewdness and drug use along Elm Street, Police Chief Carlo Capano has said.  The camera does not contain facial recognition software and no license plate readers are in use.

Under a state law enacted in 2006, police are barred from using surveillance cameras to determine the ownership of a motor vehicle or the identity of a motor vehicle’s occupants on public roads.

Nadeau, in her order, said the city’s planned use consists of the installation of cameras; the recording of Elm Street, including the vehicles and motorists on the road; and the review of footage by Manchester Police dispatch.

Under the law,  “surveillance” means the act of determining the ownership of a motor vehicle or the identity of a motor vehicle’s occupants on the public ways of the state or its political subdivisions through the use of a camera

Nadeau said the way the city planned to use the cameras does not constitute “surveillance,” as defined in the statute.

“Instead, in order to violate the statute, a government employee reviewing the footage would need to: (1) take the additional step of searching a license plate captured by the recording or running the recording through facial recognition software; or (2) recognize a vehicle or occupant thereof by virtue of their own personal knowledge. While both of these events are possibilities, neither appears to be the intended purpose of the installation of the cameras. Instead, the stated purpose of the cameras is to monitor for and respond to crimes taking place in or around the businesses and residences located on Elm Street,” she wrote.  “At most, it could be argued that the city’s planned use will enable the government to violate the statute. However, simply because footage generated by the cameras could be used to violate the law does not mean the installation or use of the cameras itself violates the law.”