Still no decision on Tampa's RNC surveillance cameras

10/04/12 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday | Listen to this entire show:


More than 100 surveillance cameras are still monitoring parts of downtown Tampa. Tampa Police want to keep them. Some council members want to move them. And Some want to flip the off switch. But in a meeting today, council member Frank Reddick found that there wasn’t much he and his colleagues could do.

“Recently the Mayor stated it’s his decision what to do with these cameras – whether they going to stay downtown or go somewhere else. So, it seems to me that we have limited authority to make any decision about these cameras.”

So Reddick asked the city council attorney to work with staff attorneys to draft an ordinance that wouldn’t overstep the Mayor. The idea is to regulate how the cameras are used and monitored. But that did little to subdue critics who think the cameras just need to go. Michael Pheneger, president of the ACLU of Florida, first warned city council about potential problems with the cameras before they were even purchased. Now he’s fighting to get rid of them.

“There’s something inherently creepy about being watched all the time while you’re going through the daily activities of your life. The cameras have become so pervasive that we have become almost passive in thinking about what’s going on, but it used to be that you could walk down the street, pick your nose and you wouldn’t have to worry that somebody up there on a camera would actually be watching while you did it.”

Pheneger gave council members information about a study done in London where 1,000 cameras over the course of one year only led to one arrest. And during last month’s discussion about the surveillance cameras, a Tampa Police detective even said cameras don’t stop crime, they move it. Armed with all that information, council member Mary Mulhern insisted that she would never approve an appropriation for surveillance cameras.

“No case has been made for why we should have these cameras. I didn’t even vote for these cameras to be here for the convention because no one presented a case to us that these are necessary.”

Mulhern was the only city council member to vote against having legal staffs draft language to regulate the cameras. She wants them gone altogether. Others echoed her sentiment. Lisa Montelione suggested that the cameras either be regulated or shut off. But ultimately no one lobbied for the off switch and Mulhern knew it wasn’t going to happen.

“Cameras don’t stop crime, cops do. So, every penny that we’re going to spend on all of this could be used instead for personnel, for training, for all kinds of community policing.”

The surveillance cameras purchased before the Republican National Convention with federal funding will likely stay put for at least a year. It’s too costly to move them – as much as $27,000 each. And they come with a one-year maintenance package. But even though cost won’t be an issue until late 2013, there are other concerns. The ACLU’s Pheneger said any footage captured by the cameras has to be available to the public.

“Several years ago we submitted a public records request about the cameras in Ybor City. What we found out was that during a five year period – from 2003-2008 – there were 264 public records requests by various members of the public for imagery that came from those cameras. That is the minimum number because we were also told at the same time that some of the requests might have been verbal, some of the requests might have been lost and so forth.”

The idea that anyone could access surveillance videos got council member Harry Cohen talking about what he called unintended consequences.

“Immigration and Naturalization service could ask for the copy of the tapes or the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS, could ask for a copy of the tapes. They basically would be available to anyone that wanted them to review. Then the other issue is, if anyone in the public could ask for the tapes, theoretically a criminal could ask for the tapes – a stalker could ask for the tapes and observe a certain sidewalk over and over again to look for patterns or other nefarious activity.”

But Police Chief Jane Castor doesn’t see that being a problem. First of all, she said, people can already be caught on video in public places and wind up on YouTube thanks to smart phones. Second, the agency makes it a challenge to get access to video surveillance.

“In our public records request system, we try to discourage any fishing trips by virtue of charging for that time and effort and the request have to be time, date and location specific. So, someone’s got to know what they’re looking for before they go into that.”

The concept of letting the public access any footage caught by the cameras wasn’t a bad thing to Occupy Tampa’s Tristan Lear. Only a handful spoke during public comment including members of the Occupy group and the ACLU. Their pleas were growing more urgent as it became clear that a final decision on the fate of the cameras won't be made until next year. Lear said he’s worried that police will misuse the tool and end up infringing upon people’s right to privacy.

“This would put a check on the behavior of the authorities. We’re allowing anyone to see the camera footage – we can chip away a bit at the blue wall of silence.”

If the cameras are kept in place after the one-year maintenance warranty expires it will cost $186,000 the first year for upkeep. That price would go up each year after. Some items that may pop up in a potential ordinance regulating the cameras: training for officers who monitor them and establishing a coalition of people from the community, Tampa Police and City Council to evaluate whether they are doing any good.

comments powered by Disqus