Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

How to use surveillance cameras bought for Republican National Convention?

In Tampa, surveillance cameras purchased for the Republican National Convention remain atop 25-foot poles, watching downtown streets.

In St. Petersburg, they sit in boxes, waiting a decision on their future.

But on both sides of Tampa Bay, city council members want a say in a policy discussion that ranges from crime-fighting to privacy rights to public spending.

Thursday, the Tampa City Council voted 6-1 to ask its attorney to look into an ordinance to regulate police use of the cameras.

"We have to trust you, and we do," council member Mike Suarez told police Chief Jane Castor. "But I do believe the public is owed a higher duty by us to show that the cameras are not abused."

The problem is, Tampa's City Charter clearly defines the roles of the mayor and the City Council, and it gives the council no authority to tell the mayor how to run any city department or what to do with any piece of city property. Mayor Bob Buckhorn has made it clear he plans to keep the cameras where they are so that downtown stays safe as it grows and becomes more active.

Still, council members said the cameras have the potential to erode privacy and could lead to unintended consequences.

For example, one said, what if a stalker wants to see the city's video — a public record — for the comings and goings on a particular sidewalk?

In St. Petersburg, the council, police and city staff members are scheduled on Nov. 8 to talk about what will come of the 26 cameras the city bought for nearly $263,000.

For now, the cameras are not operating. Police spokesman Mike Puetz said his understanding is they were taken down shortly after the RNC.

"We're just waiting for further discussion with the mayor and council," he said.

Some St. Petersburg council members have already made it clear they want the cameras to go into high-crime neighborhoods.

"That would go a long way to removing a choke hold off those areas," said Councilman Wengay Newton, who said there are areas of the city that have had a reputation for years as "open-air drug markets."

"Maybe it would get those places some relief," he said.

In Tampa, the city used $2 million from a $50 million federal grant to buy the cameras for the RNC. The city bought a total of 119 cameras, 78 of which are deployed downtown. The rest are being used at police headquarters or are mounted on trailers that can be moved from place to place.

The cameras come with free maintenance for a year. But starting next year, city officials say it will cost $164,000 a year to maintain the cameras and $21,000 to license the system's radio gear.

Since the convention, the cameras have continued to record what happens in front of them, though they are not actively monitored. Police keep the images for 30 days. Video from the week of the convention is being kept for four years.

Castor said the city could keep the cameras on, could monitor them for big events that bring a lot of people downtown or could monitor them actively — something that would cost a lot and require a lot of personnel.

Castor said the Tampa Police Department already has policies to prevent abuse.

This week, police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said officers got stern warnings before the RNC about misusing the cameras. The system not only keeps a record of who controls a particular camera, but also records what he or she looks at. So police were told that if they zoomed in on a woman in a bikini, for instance, the chief would know about it.

What the city should not do, Castor said, is move the cameras to other parts of town — an idea raised by several council members. Moving a camera outside the electronic network created in downtown could cost at least $34,000. It might make more sense just to buy more cameras for those areas, Castor said.

Two weeks ago, when council members convened a long-scheduled discussion on the cameras, neither Castor nor City Attorney James Shimberg Jr. showed up. On Thursday, both apologized, saying they didn't realize their presence was expected and said no snub was intended.

Council member Mary Mulhern cast the only vote against looking into the ordinance. She voted against buying the cameras in the first place and said the city should get rid of them.

"No one presented a case to us that these are necessary," she said.

"We don't need to do a study; the studies are done," Mulhern said, citing research done elsewhere, notably London, which has a lot of security cameras. "These cameras do not deter crime. ... If you put a camera up, all it does is cause the crime to go somewhere else."

Council members voted to get a report back on an ordinance from their attorney on Dec. 6.

Afterward, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said the council members are doing the right thing.

"The position of the ACLU is we don't think these cameras are necessary and we would like to see them gone," the ACLU's Mike Pheneger said. "But if they're going to stay, then we think the council has been very responsible and very concerned about the privacy interests associated with these cameras."

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