Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn insists it's a no-brainer to keep the surveillance cameras put up for the Republican National Convention watching over public areas. The public is used to cameras in the modern age, he said, and they could help fight crime. Besides, the mayor said, taxpayers bought the devices and junking them would be a waste. These arguments are weak and beside the point, and the Tampa City Council, which has limited powers to check the mayor, should subject this plan to rigorous debate. Law-abiding residents in public spaces should not be subject to around-the-clock surveillance by their local government.
Buckhorn intends to keep operating the 60-odd cameras, which the city bought for last month's convention with $2 million in federal security grants. While he said he is open to moving some cameras out of downtown and into high-crime areas, the mayor argued the devices are "valuable tools" in fostering the sense of security that would make downtown a more attractive place to visit and do business. People have grown accustomed to cameras, he said, and shutting them off would be a "colossal waste."
These are not arguments but rationalizations for keeping a freebie beyond its intended use. The cameras were designed to help guide the vast convention-related security force in the event of mass chaos by protesters. It wasn't seriously tested then, and it is hard to imagine how the same overkill would be put to a useful purpose now. The city has cut crime by 64 percent over the past decade through a strategy of proactive policing and the smart application of technology that puts officers in hot spots before crimes occur.
Buckhorn's plan also undermines the narrative that the city is safer because of a fundamentally new approach to crime-fighting. And that applies to the downtown core, too, where since 2008 the number of major crimes has fallen. The mayor also loses the financial argument. It is far cheaper to shut down the cameras than to maintain them. If security, and not cost, is driving this decision — as it should — then the city should forget about cameras and put its money toward deploying more bicycle officers, upgrading streetlights and other more effective safety improvements.
There is a difference between having a bank capture a picture at a cash machine or a private business watching its building, and a city snooping on the general population. Buckhorn said he is trying to change the perception of downtown as much as curb crime, so that businesses, and public assets from parks to museums, can prosper. But downtown is jumping already without having a camera on every corner. The devices are mostly useful after the fact, anyway, in identifying a suspect rather than preventing a crime. And the mayor is feeding the very unease about security by calling for surveillance cameras in downtown's public spaces.
The city has an obligation, especially after fanning the fears of convention-related violence, to balance public safety with civil liberties. Walking downtown or visiting Curtis Hixon Park is not consent for a digital search. The council has limited power under its budget-writing authority to block the use of the cameras. But it should use its role in channeling public input to fight these government eyes in the sky.