Cameras are for safety, not spying

While cameras are watching us, who is keeping an eye on the camera operators?

That is the major concern as Columbus City Council members begins to debate the use of security cameras in neighborhoods and at large public events.

“Protection of privacy is a legitimate issue that we all should be sensitive to,” Councilman Kevin Boyce stated at a May 28 briefing on the proposal for security cameras from the Department of Public Safety.

“If I go out and get the newspaper in my pajamas, is it a public record?” Boyce questioned. “Can anyone access that public record?”

Safety Director Mitchell Brown assured council members that the aim of the cameras would be to deter and solve crimes, and not to spy on residents.

“The objective is to get the bad guys, not to watch the good guys,” Brown said.

The proposal has the support of Mayor Michael Coleman. The city already uses cameras at some of its recreation centers.

The department has included $1.4 million in its capital budget for the pilot project, which would include the hiring of a consultant to advise the city on the implementation of the cameras.

They will be requesting the purchase of mobile units first, that can be used at community festivals such as Red, White & Boom, and on the streets during other large events, including Ohio State Football games.

Skywatch units, which would give officers a view from above the crowds, cost around $100,000, and mobile vehicle units cost around $250,000.

The department would like to have a vote on legislation to purchase two mobile units before council recesses in August.

Officials would then come back in the fall with the proposal for the neighborhood cameras. That cost would depend on how many cameras are installed, Brown explained.

The neighborhoods where the cameras could be placed have not been determined. Since last spring, department officials have been discussing the proposal with residents, and the majority welcome the cameras, according to Brown.

Locations would be selected based in part on crime statistics and residents’ desire to have the cameras in place, he added.

Safety officials are working with the city attorney’s office to craft guidelines. The department is also studying the policies and procedures of cities with cameras, and administrators have visited some locations.

Gary Baker, a westside Hilltop advocate  and member of the Columbus school board, said the majority of people in his community want cameras on their streets.

They could be used for curfew enforcement and with the summer crime strike force, he suggested.

They might also be used in partnership with the school district, he added.

Assistant Safety Director Seth Walker said that the neighborhood cameras would be “passive,” meaning that no one would be  monitoring them around the clock.

Instead, the units would be used to gather evidence once a crime is committed. It is the department’s hope that their presence would also discourage crime.

Councilman Andrew Ginther, chairman of council’s safety committee, asked whether the cameras would only chase criminals from one neighborhood into another.

If that happens, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, Brown said, because it means that “we have crime on the run” and it takes time for drug dealers and others to set up shop in a new location.

Deputy Police Chief John Rockwell testified that having the cameras would be “extremely valuable” for the cop on the beat and those investigating crimes, and the mobile units could be used in case of a disaster such as a building collapse.

Numerous other cities, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, have deployed cameras. Lower Manhattan, site of the World Trade Center attacks, has 3,000 in place.

Chicago has seen a 40 percent drop in crime since their introduction, Walker said. He acknowledged that some cities have had less success, but those were the ones that failed to plan.

Officials also pointed out that citizens are already on camera in grocery stores, banks and pharmacies.

Ginther promised public hearings before council takes action on the proposals.

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