The Tampa City Council acted in the public interest Thursday by pushing back on Mayor Bob Buckhorn's open-ended plan to operate surveillance cameras in downtown Tampa. It was an overdue defense of privacy rights and the first serious test of this council's willingness to take on a popular mayor. The city has not made a practical or constitutional case for spying on the general public, and the council has a role in balancing the city's treatment of privacy and public safety.
Council members directed their attorney to meet with the administration to craft some restrictions on where and how the cameras are used. The talks set the stage for a legal clash over the council's legislative function and the broad powers Buckhorn enjoys under Tampa's strong-mayor form of government. Under the charter, the council can flex its muscle through its budgetmaking authority, but it cannot micromanage the mayor — or in this case, the police chief. Both have said they intend to keep the cameras, which the city bought with federal money for this summer's Republican National Convention.
But this is a political issue, not a narrow legal one, and council members properly aired their concerns for two hours Thursday. They wondered whether roughly 100 cameras are overkill, whether they prevent crime or move it, and whether the police are disciplined enough not to abuse the technology. They pivoted from a debate over how to restrict the cameras' use into a larger discussion over whether they are appropriate, effective or even desirable. In so doing, they raised the central question: What sort of city do the cameras create, and shouldn't the public have a say on the matter?
The council is in an uphill fight, and it's not even clear that most members have the stomach to wage much beyond a face-saving battle. That ultimately could come down to creating a do-nothing ordinance or oversight committee that gives council members cover — and a free hand to the police. But the issue is not whether the council should trust these cameras, this mayor and this chief. What about the next administration, and the next generation of cameras and surveillance software? Allowing routine surveillance now across the breadth of downtown sets a new floor for invading a person's privacy. And these machines will only get better at isolating people and subjecting them to random government searches.
The council should have forced this discussion before it approved buying the cameras earlier this year. But the mayor's staff — citing the RNC — insisted that time was of the essence and that they would come back later to weigh any privacy concerns. The time for that conversation is now — whether the council can modify the plan or not. The public deserves to know more relevant information: the capabilities of these devices, the intended uses of the video, the protocols for sharing images with other law enforcement agencies, and so on. The issue is not the separation of powers between the council and the mayor but the obligation both have to be accountable for their decisions, particularly the far-reaching ones.