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Police say the cameras were set up to prevent violence between gangs.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver Police Department has erected temporary surveillance cameras in a neighbourhood on the city's east side, and although the department says the cameras are being used to fight gang violence, it won't say which groups are being targeted or why that specific location was chosen.

The department's gang unit tweeted a photo of the cameras – which sit atop a pole, attached to a trailer – Tuesday night. It said the cameras were set up near East 22nd Avenue and Kaslo Street to "prevent future violence between rival groups."

Constable Brian Montague, a department spokesman, said in an e-mail Wednesday that the goal is to "provide the good and law-abiding residents a community that they feel is safe and a community they feel they can enjoy without the fear of gangs and guns."

The officer, who would not agree to an interview, did not link the installation of the cameras to a specific event, and there do not appear to have been any high-profile incidents in the neighbourhood in recent weeks.

Constable Montague wrote that the cameras were previously set up in a neighbourhood on the city's south side and have "proven to be effective in decreasing and deterring violent gang activity." There is no plan to have permanent cameras at either location, and surveillance is just one of the tools the department uses to combat gangs, he said.

Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said in an interview that when it comes to video surveillance, the question is always one of justification. In this instance, Ms. Vonn said, the police department's justification "seems not unreasonable." However, she said the force must still meet the appropriate checks and balances.

"Just the fact that [the cameras] are temporary doesn't mean that you can avoid the justification that's required in order to legitimize what is the collection of personal information – and obviously the collection of personal information on a very large scale, because most of the people that they're collecting personal information on are not the people that they're targeting at all," she said.

Ms. Vonn noted that B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner has published surveillance guidelines for public-sector bodies. The guidelines say privacy is a fundamental right and the Charter of Rights protects citizens from unjustified intrusion. The guidelines also say public bodies should be prepared to demonstrate why their surveillance is authorized by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Residents should receive appropriate notice that the cameras have been installed, and information that's collected should be retained and disposed of in a secure manner, Ms. Vonn said. The privacy commissioner's guidelines say the information should be erased according to a standard schedule, with a retention period of not more than 30 days being preferable.

Constable Montague said neighbourhood residents were advised of the cameras "either in person or through written notification."

"The privacy of those that live, work and play in Vancouver is very important to us and will always be considered when we come up with strategies to combat violent crime," he wrote.

This is not the first time the department has defended its use of video. Last year, it said it likely filmed hundreds of thousands of people during the Celebration of Light fireworks event. Pairs of officers armed with video equipment could be seen at the event, and outside at least one transit hub hours before the fireworks began.

Constable Ian MacDonald, spokesman for the Abbotsford Police Department, said in an interview that it has also used cameras in its fight against gangs. The department installed the cameras in a neighbourhood on the city's west side last summer, and more recently installed cameras in a park where there had been two shootings.

He said the strategy has been successful, and the residents he's heard from have said only good things.

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