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Erik Burgess, Published December 11 2012

New focus curbing downtown crime, Fargo police say

FARGO – Downtown crime is being tempered here, thanks in part to cameras installed at the end of summer.

That’s the message police sent in a public meeting here Tuesday, as Lt. Jeff Skuza said increased, unique enforcement downtown, as well as surveillance cameras installed Sept. 21, have curbed the otherwise increasing crime in that area of town.

Since three cameras were put in on the 600 block of NP Avenue, two serious crimes have occurred in the area of surveillance. In the same span last year, eight occurred, leading Skuza to believe that something is working.

“In the short term, it certainly appears they’ve made a tremendous difference,” Skuza said, adding that he didn’t want to place all the credit on the cameras.

Still, some residents at the meeting expressed concerns about who had access to the cameras. Fargo resident Brad Friesen, who doesn’t live downtown, argued that other things could be done to decrease crime, such as improving lighting or cutting back bar hours.

“With three cameras in place, it can be a pretty slippery slope,” Friesen said. “It just seems like a real invasion of personal privacy.”

Skuza said the cameras they are using have a privacy screen that makes it impossible to peep inside windows. “We don’t have any need, right or worry to videotape private areas,” he said. “Our concern is public safety.”

He added that only eight to 12 officers have access to the camera system, and they are not being used to constantly monitor the public.

Increased police presence in the downtown area came in response to rising crime. Pointing to a map that detailed crime in Fargo, downtown was painted crimson, representing the highest density of crime in the city. Skuza said police refer to the area as “the red cloud.”

Downtown makes up less than 2 percent of the city geographically, but 21 percent of the city’s aggravated assaults occurred there this year, as of Sept. 17. Sixteen percent of criminal mischief, 14 percent of thefts, and 10 percent of traffic crashes happened downtown this year.

All said, the police department is putting 16.6 percent of its manpower into the area, Skuza said.

Complaints were at their highest in late June, when Skuza said criminal mischief was up 168 percent downtown compared to last year, and theft was up 92 percent.

In response, police increased enforcement in the area. Eleven officers patrol that area, whereas six officers are assigned to each of the city’s 11 other “beats.” Five special operations have been run downtown since August, resulting in six to eight arrests and 20 citations each time.

With the increased presence, criminal mischief complaints have been cut to a 24 percent increase and theft is up only 22 percent, Skuza said.

As for those concerned about the ethics of public surveillance, Chief Keith Ternes said they would have to “agree to disagree.”

“The use of cameras and how we’re using them is legal,” Ternes said. “To this point, I think it’s fair to say they have had at least a positive effect in the downtown area.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518