Madison Police Department Capt. Mary Schauf surprised a room full of University of Wisconsin students last week in posing a question she thought was common knowledge:

“You’re familiar with our cameras aren’t you?” Schauf asked the group.

Eyes widened and heads shook emphatically “no.”

Schauf explained the State Street corridor is monitored 24/7 by cameras that transmit through the Web back to a digital server in Madison’s City-County Building.

“They’ve been phenomenal,” Schauf said. “We’ve had valuable evidence in many crimes captured on that video.”

Schauf said after a pattern of robberies developed several years ago, the MPD and the city discussed several strategies for dealing with crime on case-by-case and preventative levels.

From the conversation, a downtown safety initiative was born. The initiative involved targeted police resources, a community education program and, finally, cameras.

Installed and integrated into the system over the past two years, cameras watch over the city from eight locations on State Street, Schauf said. Yet despite what officers say has been a high-profile process, UW students seem largely unaware State Street is monitored on film.

“I thought that was just for Halloween,” UW junior Joy Rifkin said. “Weird.”

“I didn’t know that,” Deanna Morgan, a UW junior, said. “I think it’s a little creepy.”

MPD spokesperson Joel DeSpain said the ever-changing student population may account for the informational disconnect.

“(With students) you get a new group of people coming through, so they may not have seen stories or past coverage to know that the cameras are there,” DeSpain said.

Although initially plagued with technical problems, the cameras have proved an ultimately effective tool for solving crimes.

Schauf said the cameras were instrumental in aiding officers with a homicide case outside Crave Lounge on Gorham and State streets in December 2008.

“For those who are familiar with the cameras, I think they have a deterrent effect too,” DeSpain said. “Big Brother, so to speak, is watching.”

Indeed, many articles, blog posts and individuals ruminating on the downtown monitors often invoke George Orwell’s famous novel “1984.” Still, more bring up the issue of personal rights.

“I feel like not knowing the cameras were there takes away some of my right to privacy,” UW junior Ashley Smith said.

Yet other students are sympathetic to the project, noting its importance to safety on Madison’s most-visited pedestrian promenade.

UW sophomore Dave Berndt said while he was unaware of the cameras, the knowledge does not surprise him.

“With the types of crowds there are on State Street at night, there has to be some way to make sure things aren’t destroyed,” Berndt said. “It would look bad for our state if there was graffiti and damaged benches everywhere.”

Oliver De Albuquerque, a UW junior and former State Street resident who knew of the cameras, echoed Berndt’s sentiment.

“They have cameras posted up in parks and bad neighborhoods,” De Albuquerque said. “They have done this for awhile. I think it serves a purpose.”

Even without city cameras, DeSpain said the MPD routinely relies on video resources from State Street bars, buildings and ATMs.

Schauf said when a crime occurs, officers go door-to-door asking for any video footage people and businesses have that could be shared with the department.

While public knowledge of the cameras is inconsistent and often hearsay-based, DeSpain said the project was never meant to be shrouded in mystery.

“It certainly is not something that we’ve tried to make a secret,” DeSpain said. “We want people to know they’re there.”