“You better watch who you’re talking to. This is a bad town.”

It’s not noon yet, and four burly men are jawing in a parking lot off of Gilroy’s main downtown street. Their combined weight almost equals that of the Honda Civic that blocks the path of one of the men’s vehicles and the source of the dispute. Fifty feet from where they stand, a 24-hour surveillance camera rests under a streetlight to capture any crime.

Whether or not the man whose words have just drawn a proverbial line in the parking lot is aware of the camera is unclear. Either way, he doesn’t seem to care.

The potential for incidents such as this to spiral out of control, whether on a sunny Tuesday morning or in the dead of night, is exactly why the Gilroy Police Department and the city’s Downtown Business Association partnered two months ago to spend $50,000 on six cameras that will line five blocks along Monterey Street.

Complaints from business owners about rowdy drunks fighting and urinating in front of their shops at late hours prompted the city’s unprecedented move this summer to monitor and record the actions of its citizens at all hours of the day. The Downtown Association pitched in $20,000 for the project, while the GPD has agreed to spend as much as $35,000.

Shopkeepers are divided on whether things have gotten better since the first camera was installed in July. Many say they don’t even think about it. If anything, it seems the purchase has bought some subconscious peace of mind.

“I’ve been working here for 30 years and I’ve never felt unsafe,” says Karen Covington, a well caffeinated barista at Sue’s Coffee Shop, which sits directly across the road from the surveillance camera on Fifth Street and Monterey. “But if that’s what the Downtown Association feels it takes to get people down here and businesses to feel safe locating here, that’s a good thing.”

Ruben Deharo and Cipriano Ponce, who operate Potro Salvaje, a small hat shop in a mall up the block, say they’ve noticed a slight drop in illegal activity at night, but they can’t pinpoint any particular incidents that have been averted because of surveillance.

For now, neither can Gilroy’s police.

Until recently, the only operational camera wasn’t set up to record. Instead, it acted as an eye in the sky for someone to monitor from the dispatch office. But no GPD officer currently has that duty as the department works out software and hardware kinks.

“We’re in the early stages of trying to troubleshoot any problems we have,” says Sergeant Chad Gallacinaio. “We want to make sure that the camera system is able to work properly and give information back without being choppy or any type of delays.”

Crime numbers provided by the GPD show a spike of violence and theft in the downtown corridor during the first three months of this year—90 compared to 69 during the same period in 2010—which led to the push for cameras this spring. Crime decreased to levels seen a year ago in the following months, but went back up to last year’s levels following the camera’s installation in July and August. The need for such a pervasive surveillance system is up for debate.


“My professional opinion is crime is no worse downtown than anywhere else in the city,” Gallacinaio says.

But as business owners continue to tread the post-recession waters, attracting customers is as crucial as ever. Gilroy isn’t the first city in Santa Clara County to install video surveillance in what public officials like to call “hot spots.” However, many admit that the worth can range anywhere from a mixed bag to meaningless.

Look Up
The most comprehensive video surveillance system in Santa Clara County is maintained by the Valley Transit Authority (VTA), which began installing cameras at light rail stations in 2005. Funded to date with $6.7 million in federal grants and $4.7 million in state Prop 1B bond money, a VTA spokesperson says 40 percent of the 62 light rail stations are equipped with Closed Caption Television (CCTV) devices.

San Jose has also experimented with video surveillance, installing cameras along Santa Clara Street and Fountain Alley, as well as positioning cameras at parks as a means of combating graffiti, vandalism and illegal dumping of waste.

Mike Will, who heads up San Jose’s graffiti abatement program, says there are more than 100 “hot spots” for such activity in the county’s largest city. But, working alongside Groundwerx, a city-funded organization that handles small-scale nuisance and blight, Will admits that the city is overmatched.

San Jose only has six cameras to monitor “hot spots,” all of which are currently out of operation for repairs. And even when the cameras are working, that might not necessarily mean a thing.

“I would say, yes, it does work, but some people, quite frankly, are immune to that kind of stuff,” Will says. “They don’t worry about it.”
Social capital is a fancy term for the connections between people that keep a community safe. As tax revenues fall and public safety budgets across the county are slashed, unique alternatives to prevent and monitor criminal activity are always under consideration. But nothing seems to supplant eyes and ears, and boots on the ground.

“Cameras are a poor substitute for police officers, but technology can be helpful if used within reason,” says San Jose City Councilmember Sam Liccardo, whose downtown district is inundated with similar business owner complaints to those made in Gilroy.

“There might be greater value in having a sign saying this area is under video surveillance than the camera itself, ” Liccardo adds.

Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, says his organization has looked at everything from cameras and playing classical music in areas of loitering to hiring private security firms—an idea Santa Cruz’s police department now uses.

“It’s that whole broken windows theory,” Knies says. “We can’t let the little stuff slide, because if you do, it just invites this proliferation of more and more crime.