St. Petersburg has 26 security cameras purchased for the Republican National Convention that the mayor and police chief want to deploy permanently in the downtown area. Not so fast. The high-tech cameras are a powerful snooping device, and before they're deployed the city should demonstrate a need for heightened government intrusion into the privacy of people going about their business or enjoying the city's public spaces. The cameras were bought for a specified security need. The city has an obligation now to demonstrate how, and where, that risk still exists.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon — with Mayor Bill Foster's support — wants to place most of the cameras in public places and commercial corridors around downtown. Last week, council members Wengay Newton, Jeff Danner and Karl Nurse argued it would make sense to use them in certain crime-ridden areas and neighborhoods. What didn't get much support was to simply mothball the cameras. Foster made it clear he's not considering that option, saying, "We've got the asset, and we need to deploy it."
But serious privacy issues should not be shunted aside just because the city has $260,000 in new surveillance equipment. Consider how the cameras may adversely affect a sense of security. People living downtown, for instance, could be subject to inadvertent recording of their goings on in their apartments and condos. Recordings will be public record and available to, say, a stalker, an estranged spouse or to private companies. The camera technology is extremely advanced, with police able to monitor what the cameras see via their iPads and iPhones. What safeguards will be in place to ensure no one in the Police Department will engage in voyeuristic abuse or otherwise misuse the footage?
Any crime reduction justification for the cameras is a weak one. Thanks at least in part to smarter policing, crime rates in St. Petersburg are down. Harmon has acknowledged that the department can't afford to have someone always monitoring what the cameras are recording. And the cameras could take resources from other police operations. The city owns them, but maintaining them won't be free. It is estimated it will cost between $4,000 and $15,000 just for each camera to be installed.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is going through the same exercise with his city's 100 or so cameras from the RNC. But the Tampa City Council is pushing back against the wholesale spying plan. The administration is expected to respond to the Tampa council's request for restrictions by early December.
City leaders in both Tampa and St. Petersburg should consider the impact on trust between the police and residents when surveillance devices justified as necessary during the heightened security environment of the RNC continue to be used after that special circumstance has passed. Adding an unblinking government eye to downtown or area neighborhoods in Tampa Bay may be technically legal, but it isn't a sound policy. Just because police have a new tool doesn't mean they should get to use it indiscriminately at the cost of the public's privacy.