Tampa City Council to workshop pros and cons of Republican convention surveillance cameras in August 2013

12/06/12 Seán Kinane
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Thursday Tampa City Council approved changes to an ordinance reinforcing that it would be a crime for Tampa Police to use surveillance cameras purchased for the Republican convention for unauthorized peeping on residents inside their homes. But they put off a decision about whether the cameras will be a permanent part of the city’s landscape. There’s been ongoing friction between council and the mayor’s administration about who has the authority to authorize deployment of the cameras. To help clear that up council scheduled a workshop for next August suggested by member Harry Cohen.

"And at that time it would be my suggestion that we review the way that the program has worked over the past year and that we talk about the procedures, that we speak to the police department and the legal department about how they've been employed, whether or not this program has been of value for the taxpayers. I would suggest that once we've had that discussion and we've had time to review the cameras that we've already purchased that we could decide to pass an ordinance prohibiting the use of cameras or we could decide to go ahead and approve a maintenance agreement for the existing camera system that we have."

Cohen’s suggestion was seconded by council member Mary Mulhern who has criticized the city for moving too quickly on making the government’s surveillance cameras a permanent part of Tampa’s landscape like they are in larger cities like Chicago and London.

"If, today, we pass a new ordinance with regulations on these cameras we are endorsing and admitting that these are here to stay, that we don't have to have this larger policy discussion, we don't need to hear from the public. We don't need to hear from the police chief about making the case for whether it is right that we sacrifice people's ability to be let alone, people's ability to walk around the streets without feeling like they're being watched."

The ordinance Mulhern was referring to was passed later in the meeting. It made changes to the city’s rule forbidding peeping Toms to also include using video cameras to record people in private without their knowledge. Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor assured council this would prohibit police from using the Republican convention cameras for spying on residents inside their apartments without probable cause.

"The control of the camera system will be overseen by the Criminal Intelligence Bureau. That bureau commander works directly for the office of the chief of police, reports directly to me. There will not be any live monitoring of these cameras except in specific instances. For example, we monitor the Ybor City cameras every Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights. If there's a special event, Gasparilla, those types of things or if there's a specific crime problem, we have a pattern of auto burglaries in the downtown area, then we would monitor those in a live time capacity."

Castor said there are other protections as well. The cameras are activated by movement, the recordings are written over after between 30 and 120 days and they’re aimed at street level, not at windows. Chief Castor predicted there would be a dozen or less police personnel with access to monitoring the cameras and each would log on with a unique identification and password. During public comment, Yvette Acosta McMillan from the American Civil Liberties Union said she has concerns for the freedoms of residents.

"You all know that the ACLU's position is that the cameras should go. They shouldn't even be running as we speak. They are an encroachment on people's privacy."

Another member of the public, Brian Becker, also criticized the continued use of the Republican convention surveillance cameras.

"To implement a system that categorically allows for any subgroup, the police in this instance to observe, track, catalog movements of all individuals is to work against the democratic concept of equality itself. It is to say that the few may surreptitiously and in the shadows view the private lawful actions of the many. Surveillance is the type of oppression where the worst of the left and right meets, the point where communism and fascism agree."

Tampa City Council unanimously agreed to hold a workshop next August 29 at 9 a.m. to hash out all of the legal, financial and civil liberties concerns about the surveillance cameras.

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