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Security cameras ready to zoom in on street crime

Police in Biel are planning to tighten up security ahead of Expo.02

(Keystone Archive)

Surveillance cameras are being installed in the city of Biel as a security precaution in the run-up to Switzerland's national exhibition, Expo.02.

Local authorities said police would use the cameras to monitor the flow of traffic in and out of the city during the six-month run of the exhibition.

Expo.02, which is centred on four Swiss towns including Biel, is due to open its doors to the public on May 15.

Jürg Scherrer, director of police operations in Biel and the driving force behind the decision to install the state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, told swissinfo he hoped the cameras would eventually help to improve crime levels in the city.

"My goal is to increase security in Biel and these cameras will serve to watch both traffic and [more generally] public areas," he said.

Privacy debate

Scherrer denies charges that the cameras - to be installed at a cost to the community of SFr273,000 ($165,000) - constitute an invasion of individual privacy.

"They are security cameras and not surveillance cameras," Scherrer said.

"We will not be making any actual video recordings, and we will also be amending the computer software of the cameras so that they will only be able to watch public areas and not private areas," he added.

Authorities have sought to reassure members of the public that the protection of confidential data will not be compromised by the presence of cameras on the city's streets.

Critics have called on the police to abandon the project and last year submitted a petition to the local council signed by around 2500 city residents.

Fear of crime

The decision to install security cameras at six strategic points around the city comes in the light of a nationwide report into how safe Swiss people feel when they walk the streets.

The survey, commissioned by authorities in canton Bern and published in 2000, suggested that residents of Biel were more fearful of street crime and violent attacks than anyone else in the country.

"We recognise that we have a big drug problem in Biel...and many people don't go out in the evening because they are afraid of crime," Scherrer said.

"But I am convinced we can increase the feeling of security and also reduce the level of crime."

International example

Though the pilot project in Biel may be one of the first of its kind in Switzerland, Scherrer says remote surveillance has been tried and tested extensively in a number of other cities.

"I know that in England, for example, there are many cities with cameras," Scherrer commented.

"And I have personally visited Monaco to see how they use cameras, and I know that people feel absolutely safe there...because they know they are watched by cameras and that if anything happens the police can intervene very quickly."

A final decision about whether and where to deploy security cameras on a permanent basis in Biel is not expected to be made by the city's legislative council before the end of the year.

by Ramsey Zarifeh

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