Red Light Controversy: Hamburg Plans St. Pauli Security Cameras

By in Hamburg's red-light district

Big Brother in the hood: In an effort to reduce crime around the Reeperbahn, Germany's biggest red-light district, the city of Hamburg wants to install security cameras in the middle of sin city. The move has civil libertarians up in arms.

The Reeperbahn is Hamburg's "mile of sin." But the stretch of vice will soon be under the watchful eye of Big Brother.
DPA

The Reeperbahn is Hamburg's "mile of sin." But the stretch of vice will soon be under the watchful eye of Big Brother.

Last year, the number of violent crimes committed in Hamburg's infamous St. Pauli neighborhood rose by 19 percent. Not great numbers for the neighborhood that launched the Beatles, introduced the world to the busty St. Pauli Girl and which serves as home to Europe's second-biggest red-light district, with the Reeperbahn, known here as the "mile of sin" as its epicenter. Drug offenses have also risen by a dramatic 15 percent.

"The Reeperbahn is the biggest center of crime in Hamburg," the city-state's interior minister, Udo Nagel, said during a presentation before the local legislature on Wednesday. From May 2004 to April 2005, 757 crimes were recorded on the Reeperbahn alone -- more than in any other part of the city. The drugs and alcohol consumed along the bawdy stretch, famous the world over for its cabarets, sex shops, bars, nightclubs and other leisurely diversions, have increased the danger of altercations in St. Pauli, he warned. The breaking point came over the weekend, when a man armed with a knife attacked eight patrons, injuring some critically.

In order to fight unwanted crime in Hamburg's most popular tourist destination, the city now plans to install 12 surveillance cameras at the start of next year that would allow police to scan the comings and goings on the bustling and burlesque street on a video wall with 16 monitors.

"The point is to make the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's calling card, a safer place," he said.

Will the tourists shy away?

Of course, in a neighborhood where vice and sin are the main attraction, Nagel's proposal is coming under heavy fire from civil libertarians and other critics. After all, the presence of cameras could cause tourists and locals alike to shy away from the neighborhood. What if the images recorded by police were to be made public or landed in the tabloids?

Nagel rebutted such criticism, saying the system would also include "private zones" that wouldn't be covered by the cameras. Presumably, those would include St. Pauli's red-light alley, Herbertstrasse, where women display their wares in red-neon-bathed shop windows. "We don't care who takes their clothes off behind closed doors," Nagel said.

But in Germany, which has comprehensive laws aimed at protecting people's privacy and data, skepticism isn't exactly fleeting. Hartmut Lubomierski, who is Hamburg's commissioner for data protection, doubts the city's plan will do much to hinder crime. "Video surveillance is no cure-all," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Besides, criminality shouldn't just be observed, it needs to be prevented." Instead, he said the city would be better off increasing its police presence in St. Pauli around the Reeperbahn. Experience has shown that camera surveillance just pushes crime to other areas rather than helping to put a stop to it.

Besides, Lubomierski said, "only those culprits who behave rationally would even react to this type of control. A drug dealer will just conduct his business elsewhere. And a suicide bomber would probably just give the victory sign to the camera with his finger before attacking." He then pointed to London, saying that the recent terrorist attacks there showed that even in the European city with the greatest number of surveillance devices, the cameras still haven't necessarily increased safety.

The plan is also controversial among people working in St. Pauli. "This won't do anything for the Reeperbahn," bartender Klaus Malz told the local Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper. "Nothing really happens here anyway -- there are too many people around. People will just beat each other up on the side streets."

A salesman at a major Reeperbahn sex shop chalks the plan up to political calculation on the city's part. That the city wants to "introduce 'Big Brother' here is not surprising at all, he said. We're in the midst of an election."

A national debate

London police were able to quickly track the identities and movements of terrorists thanks to ubiquitous surveillance cameras.
DPA

London police were able to quickly track the identities and movements of terrorists thanks to ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

Throughout Germany, officials are watching the Hamburg plan closely -- and whether or not invasive technological surveillance should become the norm is the subject of a major public debate. Chancellor candidate Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democrats is one of the biggest champions of video surveillance. "In London, they never would have caught the terrorists if they hadn't had all those cameras in the Underground," she said during a recent stump speech.

But others, like Christian Pfeiffer of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony argue that the cost-benefit analysis in Britain doesn't really add up. "Despite their investigative successes, the English are now becoming a bit more sober about using surveillance because the costs of having area-wide video surveillance are enormous," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. There are also touchy questions that remain unaddressed, including the way in which the video will be stored. "How can one be certain that the surveillance videos won't somehow find their way into television as happened in Britain?" he asks. "The possibility of any illegal behavior like that must be ruled out. Nor does he believe that the cameras' presence will help reduce crime. Nevertheless, he does agree that the cameras could be an enormous tool for police conducting criminal investigations.

On the national level, Germany's Interior Minister, Otto Schily, is pushing for an increased deployment of surveillance technologies. Two weeks ago, Schily, together with Hartmut Mehdorn, the head of Germany's national railway, unveiled a new security plan for Germany's train stations. Following the March 11, 2004 attacks in Madrid and other railway scares, European leaders have been seeking better ways to make train stations less vulnerable to terrorists. Germany's plan will include the deployment of security cameras and an increased federal police presence.

"Video surveillance is well-proven," Schily said, before unveiling a host of success statistics. Last year alone, more than 700 criminal activities were unveiled because of the presence of video cameras -- and that video was used in solving 411 of those crimes.

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