Columbus council weighs in

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When it comes to spending on surveillance cameras and other items, Columbus City Council members don’t want to be left out of the picture.

“It’s like you’re taking us for granted,” Councilwoman Charleta Tavares complained to Public Safety Director Mitchell Brown at an April 15 meeting to review the mayor’s $1.1 billion capital improvements budget. “These decisions are being made as if we’ve signed off on these, and we haven’t.”

Tavares was responding to Brown’s request to spend $1.4 million to install crime surveillance cameras in the city, including two mobile units that would be used to monitor crowds at large events.

Council hasn’t given the department authority to install the cameras or set a policy for their use, the councilwoman pointed out.

Approving the spending before setting the policy is “putting the cart before the horse,” Tavares said.

Tavares recalled that there were extensive discussions before the city deployed cameras to catch drivers running red lights, and that council gave specific instructions on how the cameras were to be used.

“We’ll be held accountable for what’s done with those cameras once we release the funds,” Tavares said. “We’ll be the ones who get the calls.”

Columbus already uses security cameras at some of its recreation centers. Having a policy in place before the devices are installed is “critical,” agreed Councilwoman Priscilla Tyson.

Those cameras are directed at city property “and not at someone’s home,” Tyson said.

Councilman Kevin Boyce acknowledged that there is always a concern about “Big Brother” watching over citizens and invading their privacy when cameras are discussed. “Nobody wants a camera pointed at their front door.”

Brown said he intends to use the cameras to gather evidence once a crime is committed, rather than to keep tabs on residents.

“We won’t have officers looking at the cameras 24/7,” Brown explained.

He also promised to have discussions with residents before cameras are brought into a neighborhood. Many residents have already asked for the cameras to reduce crime, he added.

In addition to the software and hardware, Brown wants to hire a consultant to advise the city on how to use the cameras.

Tavares recommended that the safety committee hold a hearing before the spending is approved.

The public safety department’s entire capital budget request is $41 million for equipment, vehicles and building renovations.

Brown is asking for $5 million for work on the new location for the police department’s crime lab and property room on Woodrow Avenue.

That’s in addition to the $2 million spent last year to purchase the building and to obtain architectural designs for the renovation.

When Councilman Andrew Ginther questioned whether this should be a priority as budgets tighten, Finance Director Joel Taylor responded that the expenditure could be as much as $12 million less than constructing a new building.

Most of this year’s funds will be spent to replace the roof. Not doing the repairs would make the city’s investment “worthless in a short time.”

Taylor said that the property room should be ready in about a year, but it would require additional spending to get the crime lab up and running.

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