St. Petersburg residents are about to engage in a public discussion about the intersection of privacy rights, crime-fighting and surveillance cameras. Mayor Bill Foster is proposing to install portable, wireless, remote-controlled surveillance cameras around St. Petersburg to help reduce crime. Private businesses routinely use remote cameras to keep an eye on their customers inside and the surrounding area outside. Feeds from live Web cams focused on public spaces are all over the Internet. But there are legitimate questions surrounding the expansive use of surveillance cameras in public areas by police.
For example, Foster suggests residents would not necessarily know when a camera would crop up on their block. The cameras could be moved to record activity around crime "hot spots" including residential areas, city parks and tourist districts. This approach could engender a sense of omniscient surveillance. While that might be helpful to police, should the law-abiding public expect to know when they are in an area being monitored by cameras?
There are other questions to be answered as well. Are the cameras to be actively monitored, or are the recordings to review incidents after the fact? Will residents be warned in advance of a camera deployment and given the opportunity to object? Will the recordings be archived and if so, are they public records accessible to anyone? Will the cameras supplant a police presence, or will they be used to supplement police deployments? What evidence is there that cameras used in this way are effective in fighting crime?
The two-year experiment by the Tampa Police Department using dozens of cameras and facial recognition software to scan crowds in the entertainment district in Ybor City proved to be an ineffective law enforcement tool.
Foster should seek plenty of input from residents and research the effectiveness of police-monitored surveillance cameras in other cities before proceeding.