After Easthampton webcam gains fans, business donates two to police department; civil liberties lawyer says move raises questions

(Published in print: Tuesday, February 17, 2015)

EASTHAMPTON — Over the last few weeks, Easthampton people from down the street and across the country have been enjoying the view of the intersection of Main and Union streets broadcast from a webcam perched in the window of Web-tactics.

Janel Jorda, owner of the Main Street web design firm, installed the webcam in her window Jan. 26. The high-definition view shows Big E’s Supermarket framed by Mount Tom and quickly became popular after it was publicized on “Easthampton 01027 The Good News Page” on Facebook.

So popular, in fact, that Easthampton Police Detective Dennis Scribner came into her office just a few days after the video feed went live.

“The clarity on it is really cool,” he said. “It gave us the idea for monitoring problem intersections.”

detective and jorda2JERREY ROBERTS Dennis Scribner, who is a detective for Easthampton Police, and Janel Jorda, who is the owner of Web-tactics, pause while preparing two webcams for operation by the police Friday at the Easthampton Public Safety Complex. Jorda, who has been running a web cam from the window of her Main Street business, donated two cameras to the police. The computer screen shows a view of the intersection of Main and Union Streets, from the web cam in her store. The police plan to use them to monitor traffic.After seeing how interested Scribner was in the camera’s possibilities, Jorda offered to donate two of the $400 Dropcam Pros to the department.

“I was so excited that they were embracing new technology,” said Jorda, who lives in Northampton. Donating the webcams “makes me happy, because I completely appreciate police.”

However, an attorney who works in civil liberties said the use of the cameras for such broad surveillance raises serious questions about privacy rights in Easthampton.

Jorda met with Scribner on Friday afternoon at the Public Safety Complex on Payson Avenue to install the webcam software on a department computer and to show the detective how to operate the units.

Scribner said he plans to place one of the cameras in an office at the Municipal Building aimed at the intersection of Cottage and Union streets and Payson and Williston avenues. The technology, he said, will be a great asset to policing.

“A lot of times with accidents, there’s two sides of the story,” he explained. “Having evidence to support the chain of events is always crucial to the investigation.”

The webcams can operate anywhere there is a Wi-Fi connection. Footage is stored temporarily on a computer before it is overwritten by new footage. Scribner said rolling back the footage will be especially helpful when there are no witnesses to an accident.

He said he was not sure where the second webcam will be placed.

Bill Newman of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union said he wonders about the need for such broad, unrestricted surveillance over the busy intersection.

“How many accidents outside the Municipal Building with a serious question of liability have occurred?” he asked Saturday. “I am concerned about what appears to be the somewhat cavalier attitude with which we further create and accept a national security state in our local towns.”

Newman said even before regulations are considered, “the municipal government has to answer the question (of) what is the crucial public purpose being served for this invasion of privacy.”

He said it’s vital for the city to regulate how data collected from the webcam is used, who has access to it, when it will be deleted and how potential subpoenas for the information will be handled.

Service to the city

Jorda says she thinks her webcam gained popularity because people love Easthampton. “There’s no other place like Easthampton,” she said. In her view, the city’s blend of hard-working residents, artists and small businesses creates a friendly, vibrant community.

That affection lasts for people even after they leave.

Pat Brough, who operates the Good News Page, said people from Easthampton like to check in with the community long after they move away. Many of the 5,000 likes on his page are from people who no longer live in the city.

“This gives them a chance to see what’s happening live right on Main Street,” he said. “It’s a great view of the city.”

Jorda said she’s heard positive feedback about the webcam from people who have walked into her office or emailed her from far away. Some of those emails, she said, are from people who got the chance to watch the recent barrage of snowstorms hit their hometown from the comfort of their couch.

“It immediately became part of the community,” Jorda said. “I just did it as a service to the (people of) the city.”

As for donating two webcams to the police, Jorda said it was common sense. She said both her brother and father are retired law-enforcement officials, the source of her respect for policing.

“How could I not donate to them?” she asked. “I’m a big believer in karma.”

In celebration of her 10 years in business, Jorda said she has pledged to complete 10 good deeds. The donation to the police marks her sixth.