Sunday, May 20, 2018
Public safety

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to keep RNC security cameras focused downtown

TAMPA — One man has the power to decide where the 60 or so surveillance cameras posted downtown for the Republican National Convention will go: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

And he likes them right where they are.

Buckhorn said Tuesday he would consider deploying some to other parts of the city — perhaps higher crime areas, such as Sulphur Springs. But with the expanding Riverwalk and more visitors at the 2-year-old Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the mayor said downtown cameras would be a "valuable tool."

"We want people coming downtown, and we want them to be safe," he said.

Tampa purchased the cameras using $2 million from a federal grant for RNC security. And though it has been clear the city would keep them, authorities have not answered how and where the cameras would be used after the convention ended Aug. 30.

Buckhorn said he never planned to shut them down.

"The taxpayers paid two million bucks for that," he said. "For us to turn it off and let pigeons roost on it, I think would be a colossal waste of taxpayers' money."

Several Tampa City Council members have expressed concern about the surveillance. The American Civil Liberties Union wants the cameras removed.

On Tuesday, council member Frank Reddick said he hopes some cameras could be moved to parts of Tampa where crime and illegal dumping are prevalent.

Council members will discuss their hopes at a Sept. 20 meeting, but the decision is Buckhorn's.

The City Council will not have input unless it becomes a money issue, and that won't happen for a year, when the camera system's maintenance contract expires. A city spokeswoman said Tuesday an estimate of that eventual cost was not available.

Tampa police monitored the camera feeds during the RNC, but have since stopped constant surveillance. Now, certain Tampa police officials can log into a system on their computers with a password and pull up video feeds, said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. Recordings are saved for 30 days.

Tampa police have not decided how they will monitor the cameras — whether they will watch feeds around the clock, tune in at certain times, or just pull up segments as needed, Davis said.

"We're working with the mayor to determine how we move forward with the cameras," she said.

The ACLU has monitored the issue since it came before City Council in March. The group's concern is that authorities sometimes inappropriately use surveillance cameras, said ACLU Florida spokesman Taylor Johnson. He cited instances when police have disproportionately focused on minorities and used the cameras for personal reasons.

Cities often purchase security cameras for events — such as conventions, the Super Bowl or Olympics — and continue to use them afterward. Most of the 200 police surveillance cameras currently used in downtown St. Paul, Minn., were purchased for the 2008 Republican National Convention held there, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported this month.

Buckhorn and Tampa police Chief Jane Castor shrug off concerns, saying people should not expect privacy in public spaces.

"ATMs take your picture," Buckhorn said. "Buildings have cameras."

The notion of an area without cameras in public is "about 50 years old," he said.

In the Tampa Bay area, authorities say private-sector surveillance cameras are already prevalent. Tampa police often turn to them after a crime, whether it's a camera outside a gas station or one of the increasing number of home security cameras.

In May, a residential camera helped police track down the men they believe beat up a U.S. Army sergeant, and they have helped solve robberies and the assault of a U.S. Postal Service worker, police say.

But critics often ask: Do surveillance cameras prevent crime?

A 2009 analysis of studies, published in Justice Quarterly, concluded that closed-circuit surveillance cameras were most useful in reducing crime in parking lots — not violent crimes, but auto thefts and burglaries.

"It's a deterrent," Davis said. "People are aware they are on camera. They think twice."

Castor and Buckhorn hope that when the maintenance contract expires in a year, downtown businesses will want to pitch in to support the system.

Castor said other cities have that type of arrangement, and Buckhorn plans to talk with the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

"We've created so much energy and so much excitement and so much pedestrian activity downtown that those cameras are vital for us to keep this environment safe and to attract people to come here," Buckhorn said. "People on the streets means more investment — more private sector investment."

Downtown Partnership president Christine Burdick said the group has time to determine the cameras' value to downtown businesses and whether the business owners would be in favor of paying for their maintenance.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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