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April 15, 2004 - Hour Magazine (CN QU)

Camera Obscura

By Martin Patriquin

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The next time you see him, take a moment to pity that poor drug dealer on the corner of Berri and Ste-Catherine.

Look at him, decked out in those oversized hip-hop jeans that hang on for dear life off his skinny white ass. He makes his living one dime bag at a time and has to hustle like hell to do it. He looks like he can barely afford his own Eminem affliction, let alone the layers of junk jewellery he heaps on himself and his girlfriend. Poor bastard.

And now, the cameras are coming.

It seems the local business owners and homeowner types have had enough of him and his kind, and persuaded the police to install security cameras in various spots around Berri metro station, as well as along Berri and St-Denis streets - the latter an avenue almost as treacherous and unstable as Baghdad, if you listen to what some area merchants are saying.

St-Denis between Sherbrooke and Rene-Levesque is "the only spot in Quebec where drug trafficking is practiced openly, on the street," sniffed Richard Fradette, director of the Societe de developpement du Quartier latin, to La Presse last week. (This would be news to anyone living on Ontario Street between St-Hubert and Papineau, but I digress...)

Other merchants have complained that profligate drug use, vandalism and crime have scared their clients stiff. One fellow says he even has to run to and from his car when attending St-Denis Theatre, just to avoid the hoards of riff-raff. Poor bastard.

Whether any of this is true - and judging by the size and affluence of the crowds flocking to St-Denis Street in the summertime, you could make a good case that it isn't - doesn't really matter. The fact is, people are scared - - scared of crime, scared of squeegee punks, scared of panhandlers, scared of spray paint and scared of difference.

So, as is common with scared people, they panic and do something wrongheaded, ineffective and dumb. In the process, they make things a little more perilous for the rest of us. These cameras, part of a four-month pilot program, are wrong, pure and simple.

Let's see, where to start? Right. The drugs. Yes, there are drug dealers near Berri metro. Yes, they can be annoying - and, on rare occasions, dangerous. They are the reason the police and/or metro cops have one or more vans permanently affixed to the street corner outside the metro. Sometimes fights break out. Sometimes cars are vandalized. Often, arrests are made. Such is life.

But putting up cameras in front of the metro - and anywhere else, for that matter - punishes anyone else who walks by there. Yes, the police have sworn up and down that they'll view the recorded tapes only in the case of an "incident," or if they are investigating a crime. But that means you have to trust the police, and so far they've refused to tell the public where, exactly, they'll put these cameras, or how many there will be. It's for our own protection, they say. Nor did they say exactly in what cases the tapes will be viewed. Is it drug dealing? Spray-painting? Begging? Skateboarding? No one knows.

Let's be totally honest here for a moment. The area in question is hardly overrun by drug dealers. It does have more than its fair share of homeless people, street kids, skaters, punks and hangers on, though, and those cameras could indeed come in handy in identifying them, not to mention keeping tabs. The very act of installing cameras in a public place is an invitation for abuse, a way of trivializing something that should never be banal, or routine.

Here's another group on which we should keep tabs and thoroughly punish. They cause 22 per cent of the deaths on Quebec roads, amounting to thousands of lost lives every year. They cause 17 per cent of serious injuries. They do so by speeding in their cars, something of which one in two Quebecers is guilty, according to the province's insurance association. But the second you suggest photo radar, people scream Big Brother. An all-too-intrusive cash grab by the government, they say. As a result, photo radar will likely not be seen in Quebec for a long time, maybe never. Until then, people will continue speeding, and dying.

Why have surveillance cameras and not photo radar, you ask? Simple: People who drive have more clout than those who hang out in front of Berri metro for business and pleasure. Drug dealers - and the punks, squeegees, panhandlers and street kids who vastly outnumber them - are a voter-friendly problem that is easy to deal with: Just install cameras to placate the scared.

And what happens when those dealers are sufficiently scared enough to leave the area for another, less scrutinized neighbourhood? Not to worry, the Montreal police say. We have a contingency plan. Again, the police refused to elaborate, but it isn't unthinkable that it will involve more cameras. And remember, the same police force had a contingency plan to deal with those hookers flushed out from the corner of St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine a few years back. The result? Those same hookers moved east, to poorer neighbourhoods. You see many of them near Berri metro station, oddly enough.

Here's another fun fact about cameras: They don't really work in the long term. Yes, they can help in smaller towns like Baie-Comeau and Sherbrooke, where there are few other places to run. But here in Montreal, we have 64 other metro stations - including a handful where foot traffic compares with that of Berri. The logical equation, then, isn't more security. It's more cameras.

And consider the sobering example of London. That city installed cameras on street corners in the late 1980s, in response to the many IRA bombings of the time. The result? Not one IRA bomber caught, though the bombings continued. To this day, the cameras remain. This in a country now seriously considering countrywide biometric identification cards.

Are surveillance cameras and these ID cards cause and effect? No. But the cameras sure set a nice precedent. It's all for our own protection, after all.

Hence, these cameras, which will remain on the streets till the fall as part of a pilot project.

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