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Tampa could add surveillance cameras for Republican National Convention

TAMPA — This city now has five surveillance cameras watching traffic downtown, but next year's Republican National Convention could bring hundreds more on the street and in the sky.

Among other things, officials are interested in:

• 164 cameras able to read a number 3 inches high at 300 meters in the day and identify people and vehicles at 100 meters in the dark. Many of these would be mounted on light poles.

• Two "unmanned aerial vehicles" that could hover for 20 minutes, fly in 20-knot winds and carry cameras with zoom lenses or thermal imaging capabilities.

• 20 helmet cameras with 2 1/2 hours of recording time to document crowd disturbances.

• Six trailer-mounted mobile cameras on booms that rise 20 feet or more, six more breadbox-sized cameras for covert use around high-risk activities, and four cameras that could read license tags in six lanes of traffic at speeds of 100 mph.

The money to buy or lease this gear is expected to come from a congressional appropriation for convention security, but Tampa police will not necessarily get all 238 cameras on the list, Assistant Chief Marc Hamlin said.

Depending on many factors, including cost and the availability of other resources, the city could look at using more officers and fewer cameras or fewer officers and more cameras.

A lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said the city is "overdoing it," especially with the drones.

"They're hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer," said John Dingfelder, the ACLU's senior staff attorney for mid Florida. Whatever Americans think about the use of unmanned drones overseas, Dingfelder suspects that many people aren't ready to see them in their back yards.

Police could decide against the drones, Hamlin said, especially if other agencies provide enough aviation support.

On Tuesday, officials opened proposals from two companies. One is Avrio RMS Group, based in the Washington, D.C., area, which provided video surveillance at both national political conventions four years ago. The other is Iron Sky, based near Houston, with wireless video surveillance systems in 30 cities.

Convention organizers expect up to 10,000 protesters to converge on Tampa during the convention on Aug. 27-30.

In St. Paul, Minn., site of the 2008 GOP convention, local officials told Tampa police the cameras not only helped during the event, but the videos were used in criminal prosecutions and lawsuits afterward. St. Paul drew an estimated 500 anarchists who smashed plate-glass windows, rammed a police car with a burning garbage bin and threw sandbags from an overpass, hitting a bus full of convention delegates.

"These are people who are committed to mayhem, and if we're not careful they will incite it," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

Tampa plans to provide enhanced security surveillance for 100 to 200 sites during the convention. The city wants the system to record video around the clock and retrieve the images quickly. The cameras must be in place, with training done, by May 1. City officials aren't sure yet whether they will buy and keep the surveillance cameras, lease them only for the convention or lease the system but keep some components permanently.

Whether the cameras remain in place after the convention will depend largely on the cost of maintenance and support.

Dingfelder, a former City Council member, said the city should have a public discussion about whether it would want surveillance cameras permanently.

Under an exemption to Florida's Public Records Law, details of the bids. including the cost, are exempt from disclosure for 30 days unless the city awards a contract sooner. That's "highly unlikely" given the complexity, said Tampa director of purchasing Gregory Spearman.

Money for the cameras is expected to come from a $55 million federal appropriation Tampa is seeking for convention security.

Of that, nearly $25 million would be used to pay for the additional 3,000 police officers that the city expects to bring in, house, feed and pay during the convention.

Officials from Tampa and Charlotte, N.C., the site of next year's Democratic National Convention, have lobbied Congress to pass the appropriation. But amid the highly charged debates about the budget and debt ceiling, it hasn't happened yet.

Tampa could add surveillance cameras for Republican National Convention 10/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 7:51am]

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