Are residents and visitors being watched in Aspen?
December 23, 2014
Big Brother might not be keeping too close of an eye on Aspen's residents and visitors, but his cousins have got cameras in quite a few places.
Stopping into the McDonald's restaurant near Rubey Park for a Big Mac and an order of large fries? There's a small ceiling camera to the left that's watching your every move. Thinking of lighting up some weed on the dance floor — smoking marijuana is illegal in public places and business establishments — at Belly Up on South Galena Street? Better watch out, because the nightclub's extensive security system has the ability to capture the moment and relay it to local cops, as numerous arrest-warrant affidavits written over the past several years have indicated.
Cameras are located at the base of all four mountain operations of Aspen Skiing Co. as well as at the company's retail shops and hotels. Most downtown retailers that sell expensive items have them, as one might expect.
They are rolling on nearly every Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus and at all rapid-transit bus stations along Highway 82. The Aspen Police Department is even experimenting with body cameras — despite the city's generally low crime rate — that can record conversations between officers and suspects.
Dan Blankenship, CEO of RFTA, was one of few sources contacted by The Aspen Times who was willing to speak on the record about security systems and how they benefit the transit agency as well as the community.
"We have cameras on board just about every bus on the fleet with the exception (of a few older buses) that are spares we roll out in the wintertime," Blankenship said. "We also have cameras at our bus-rapid transit stations, around our maintenance facilities and at Rubey Park (Transit Center)."
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There are many good reasons to have the cameras, he said. RFTA has a fleet of nearly 100 buses that ferry thousands of passengers daily across the valley.
"Overall, they are beneficial. They assist law enforcement investigations from time to time, investigations that may be unrelated to anything RFTA did or anything done on RFTA property, but law enforcement sometimes need to track people. There may be cases where people may have ridden RFTA and then disappeared, for example," Blankenship said.
Also, RFTA sometimes gets complaints about things a bus driver allegedly did or didn't do properly.
"The cameras enable us to either verify or to not verify the legitimacy of those complaints," Blankenship said.
Longtime locals know that nighttime buses on Aspen and Snowmass Village routes often are packed with partiers, especially during the Christmas-New Year's holiday week or special events that draw thousands of youths, such as the Winter X Games or the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day festival. Disturbances on buses sometimes occur at those times, but they also can happen during quiet offseason periods.
"When there are disturbances on a bus, cameras can sometimes help us determine who the individuals involved were," Blankenship said.
Newer buses have cameras facing the road ahead, which are helpful following accidents in determining what happened, he said. Older buses will be retrofitted in 2015 with the front-facing cameras, Blankenship said.
"The cameras can indicate who was at fault or not at fault and whether the accident could have been avoided," he said. "It cuts both ways, but what we're really about trying to do is determine what happened."
The new rapid-transit stations are equipped with interior and exterior cameras. The exterior cameras have a large field of vision facing out into busy intersections and can assist authorities investigating accidents, Blankenship said.
Retrieving the data can be difficult, he said, as buses use DVR-type equipment. Video footage from the bus-rapid-transit stations can be viewed remotely but it's not constantly monitored. Basically, after an issue arises, RFTA can go to the source and check it out.
Blankenship said the public expects cameras on buses and at rapid-transit stations as a security measure.
"It's not like we are spying on people," he said. "There's way too much to look at."
Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan said the Sheriff's Office doesn't employ cameras except in and around the jail in Aspen.
"I think there's a lot more of that type of technology in the city, especially at private businesses and residences," Ryan said. "And a lot of homes around the county have that type of security."
Cameras are prevalent at banks and also marijuana dispensaries, Ryan said. The security monitors assist investigators with robberies and thefts.
There is no video security system at the Pitkin County Courthouse, which on weekdays is visited daily by people suspected and convicted of crimes. The sheriff's deputies and police officers stationed at or frequently reporting to the courthouse are enough of a security presence, Ryan said.
Many large cities around the world have turned to video monitoring as a way to deter crime. According to Vin-Tech Security Solutions of Chicago, the largest public surveillance-camera networks in the world can be found in Beijing, London, Chicago, Houston and New York.
Smaller cities and towns have varying degrees of video and freeze-frame security systems. Some are used to catch criminal suspects, while others are used for traffic enforcement to capture license-plate numbers of speeders.
Aspen Assistant City Manager Barry Crook said the city doesn't keep tabs on its populace or visitors. There are no cameras monitoring the downtown pedestrian malls, for instance.
The city's Yellow Brick Building, which houses preschool classrooms, has a security system with cameras in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in December 2012. The city has cameras in a few strategic places, such as its water plant, the Aspen Recreation Center and the Marolt Place housing complex.
"In general, the city manager (Steve Barwick) hasn't been wild about putting cameras everywhere, but if somebody can make a good argument for one, he might go along with it," Crook said.
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