Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn needs to restrain his tendency to overreach on civil liberties when the Republican National Convention comes to town in 2012. The Tampa Police Department is culling through a wish list that calls for buying or leasing up to 236 surveillance cameras to provide enhanced security during the convention in August. The city clearly needs to maintain law and order. But it needs to balance security with reasonable privacy protections that do not turn average people in public places into suspects.
Tampa police are only now reviewing bids for the cameras, so it is premature to criticize this act of due diligence as overkill. Officials said they first need an understanding of how much the federal government will provide toward the city's security costs. Then officials will decide which makes more sense: hiring more police or adding cameras. This is a responsible approach for such a high-profile, security event. But the city also needs to ensure that it does not spoil its moment in the sun by turning a pinnacle event in American democracy into a display of unwarranted government surveillance.
It's obvious why law enforcement would want the cameras for the convention. It's reasonable to assume that violent demonstrators will use the event as cover to provoke the police and Republican activists. Cameras could help the police deploy to flash points before they explode into something worse.
But there is also a bigger issue at play in this run-up to the convention. What happens to the cameras afterward? That answer — and what it means for citizens' privacy if the city plans to engage long-term in indiscriminate surveillance — needs to be measured now. Convention security should not pre-empt a larger community debate over whether the cameras should stay for good.
Advocates will say security cameras are a part of modern life and a prevalent feature of security on private property. Tampa's government installed its first in 1997 to combat crime in the Ybor City nightclub district. But those cameras came about after an extended, public debate. And the old technology was not nearly as exacting as today's in picking up license plates, facial features and other identifiable characteristics of both suspects and innocent passers-by.
Plus, there is also a major difference between the government installing a camera and private businesses doing it. Private companies control access to their properties and are not subcontractors of law enforcement. The government installing cameras over public areas for the sake of monitoring public assemblies raises a host of privacy concerns the city needs to balance.
How will the city determine the location of the 100 to 200 video sites police officials are proposing? Will state and federal law enforcement or private security contractors have access to them? Will the images be used for purposes other than crowd control, such as matching against law enforcement databases? What happens to the tapes, and are they public record? What standards of conduct will be required of personnel operating the cameras?
Buckhorn hasn't said whether he intends to keep the cameras after the convention. Few public officials in this down economy would make the case that a community should junk something it got for free. But the driving force in this discussion over privacy rights should not be that the city has the cameras in hand. Buckhorn said during his campaign for mayor that he has moved on from his days as a city council member waging attacks on loitering and other so-called "precursor" crimes. As mayor, he has an obligation to balance the city's security concerns with the public's right to freely assemble.