“You’re being watched.” Kelly O

As city officials throughout Washington State debate installing controversial red-light and surveillance cameras to catch lawbreakers, residents in Seattle0x2019s International District (ID) are taking a surprisingly different route: buying and installing their own.

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"There's not even one person I have met who doesn't support this project," says Nora Chan, president of the Seniors in Action Foundation, an advocacy group that represents the ID's aging, primarily foreign-born population. In two years, the group has managed to raise half of the $80,000 needed to purchase and install 12 cameras that would record 24 hours a day.

And at an August 28 dinner fundraiser, Chan raised another $33,000 in less time than it takes to catch a double feature. Over 900 people attended the dinner and a rally held earlier in the evening at Hing Hay Park, where Chan says older residents donated what they could—as little as $5—while business owners donated thousands.

"And I'm determined to raise the last $10,000 by the end of this week," she says.

Chan has already placed an order for the 12 cameras but doesn't have a firm timeline for installing them. She intends to place them throughout the 35-square-block neighborhood in areas designated as high crime spots by the Seattle Police Department (which means if you walk through Chinatown or Little Saigon in the near future, chances are you'll be recorded). However, civilians, not SPD officers, will privately monitor the dozen cameras.

Advocates say the cameras will go a long way in making elderly residents—who make up roughly 70 percent of the ID's population—feel safe in their neighborhood, where 20 percent of storefronts are vacant. The red-bricked plaza of Hing Hay Park has been a magnet for drug dealing, panhandling, and graffiti; the area ranks fourth highest for violent crimes in the city (even as residents acknowledge that crime is underreported to police, due to perceived language barriers).

The SPD supports the plan, calling it a "grassroots effort to fight crime," according to SPD spokesman Sergeant Sean Whitcomb. "The cameras, and the neighborhood, are sending a clear message: Don't commit a crime here. You're being watched. If you commit a crime here, you will be arrested for it."

But still, it's unclear how effective cameras would be at catching criminals. The ACLU of Washington argues that cameras don't deter crime. Instead: "What cameras are likely to do in practice is to move crime to other neighborhoods," says ACLU spokesman Doug Honig.

A two-year project piloting the cameras in Cal Anderson Park was hotly contested by both residents and the ACLU of Washington, which obtained surveillance footage of a camera zooming in on a girl in a miniskirt, and confirmed with then mayor Greg Nickels's office that other "instances of improper live monitoring" had taken place. The two-year pilot program was declared a failure and decommissioned after a city auditor's study concluded the cameras had no measurable impact on crime.

But ID residents say that they have evidence that it might work. Last November, the neighborhood installed one pilot camera of its own, discreetly pointed at Hing Hay Park. The camera has captured the license plates of chronic graffiti taggers and helped prosecute at least one suspected drug dealer. "It proves that there's a potential to really help police officers do their jobs," says Don Blakeney, director of the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area. "Our strategy right now is, let's throw everything together and see what sticks."

To that end, surveillance cameras are just one piece of a larger revitalization effort. Vacant storefronts are being taken over by elaborate art projects, and bands of senior citizens patrol the streets at night to enforce public safety. Businesses are compiling lists of available art studios to attract artists from the evacuated 619 Western Building. Chairs and umbrellas now liven up Hing Hay Park, and the city is working on green-­lighting sidewalk cafe permits that would allow nearby restaurants to serve there.

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And others argue that lowering crime isn't necessary to make the cameras useful. Nic Li, who leads the twice-weekly senior block watch patrols in Chinatown, says, "We're not just combating crime, we're addressing people's perception of crime."

Of course, that's what city officials argued in the case of Cal Anderson Park—before that program was scrapped. recommended

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