This camera is one of six installed in 2007 as part of a public/private partnership grant to counter rampant drug dealing on the block; HALO cameras were also placed in parts of downtown Denver; Manual, Lincoln, Montbello and East high schools all installed digital IP cameras, to be monitored by school security staff. But the cameras on Colfax — and their effect on privacy — drew the most attention. "The scientific research shows that these cameras do not work to reduce crime," says Chris Calabrese of the ACLU's New York-based Technology and Liberty Project, which runs the website "Study after study shows that surveillance cameras push crime around to other locations, but they don't actually reduce the overall rate of crime."

Martinez doesn't have any studies of Denver's overall program, but he can cite stats about this particular stretch of Colfax: "Crime decreased anywhere from 30 to 45 percent in the areas that we had cameras." Certainly, the drug dealers have been replaced by hipsters smoking cigarettes — but then, cool new bars have also moved into the area. Have the cameras reduced crime, or have they just moved it somewhere else?

1 a.m.: 1000 Chopper Circle

Lieutenant Ernie Martinez thinks HALO will bring the DPD into the future.
Lieutenant Ernie Martinez thinks HALO will bring the DPD into the future.


For pictures and a map of Denver's HALO surveillance system, go to the Latest Word blog. Contact the author at

The HALO camera I've positioned myself under is mounted to a light pole in front of the Pepsi Center. With an egg-shaped dome and transmitting nodes sticking out from the distinct white box, it almost looks like a high-tech vulture glowering down — but it's actually part of a Rapid Deployment Surveillance System from Avrio Group, a Maryland-based surveillance-technology company.

What makes these cameras different from closed-circuit cameras is that there are no cables; the images are sent though the air in an elaborate, Internet-based "mesh network." This means that the cameras can be rapidly deployed in high-crime areas. "We hit the technology gap at the right time with wireless mesh technology," Martinez says.

HALO also received start-up grants from the Urban Area Security Initiative, a federal program established after 9/11 to prepare cities for terrorist events, which paid for twelve cameras. But it really hit the mother lode when the Democratic National Committee chose Denver for its August 2008 convention: A million dollars in federal security money enabled Martinez to buy fifty more $20,000 Avrio cameras for use during the convention, when the images were routed between sixty federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies. One of those cameras was placed over the "Free Speech Zone" area for protesters outside — way outside — the Pepsi Center, and might have actually filmed the five people willing to use that area. Meanwhile, overblown fears of protesters prompted downtown businesses and building owners to install an estimated 400 more surveillance cameras on their premises.

But there's nothing much to watch tonight on these DNC cameras. A twenty-something male comes lurching down the sidewalk with the swaying gait of a severely drunk person. Since this Avrio camera has night vision along with full pivot and zoom capabilities that can read a license plate at 200 yards, I decide to zoom in myself. The twenty-something stops, then lies down near the big Pepsi logo. He looks like he might vomit, but instead he pulls out his cell phone.

2 a.m.: 20th and Blake

The clubs are emptying out, and you can hear the bouncers screaming at people to finish their drinks. Guys standing in clusters catcall at a gaggle of short-skirted females. The cameras can be useful for crowd control, Martinez says, but they still need to have police on the ground, because crowds can be unpredictable.

Indeed, one girl now lifts up her skirt and flashes her butt. She is wearing black lace panties, which she pulls down seductively as the guys cheer. Her friends pull her into a car and speed away.

The DPD has adopted a lengthy HALO policy that states the system is "exclusively for public safety and law-enforcement purposes." Other cities have had problems with police using the cameras to zoom in on attractive females; two officers in New York were disciplined for recording a couple having sex on a rooftop. Denver's policy prohibits cameras from looking into private residences, and all recordings are automatically purged after thirty days unless marked as evidence.

Detective Charles Boyles, who spent fifteen years in various local narcotics task forces before joining the HALO unit, points out that it's not just citizens who are being watched. "Some officers think that the cameras are there to watch them," he notes. In fact, it was directly beneath this light pole — before this particular camera was installed — that an undercover officer smashed a man's face into the concrete as crowds headed to Coors Field for a Rockies game. The officer charged the man with resisting arrest and assault. But an independent camera crew getting stock footage of the Rockies game had filmed the arrest, and after the teeth-smashing was played in the media, the charges against the man were dropped. The officer was suspended from the force and is now awaiting trial on charges of assault.

3 a.m.: 14th and Cherokee

Three HALO cameras are mounted to light poles right in front of DPD headquarters, recording nothing right now but cop cars and vans entering and leaving the basement garage. It seems somewhat counterintuitive to locate mobile video surveillance equipment directly outside the place where you are running your surveillance operations; couldn't you just look out the window?

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