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Taping by police spurs privacy questions

Tarpon Springs officials say video cameras are valuable tools for catching criminals, but the practice reminds some of Big Brother.

When police officers wanted to document drug deals and other crimes in front of a controversial restaurant, they pressed the record button on their video cameras.

When they wanted to document that people were setting off explosives illegally during Greek Easter celebrations, officers videotaped the celebrations in the streets. Their tapes later led to the arrest of a teenager for setting off a homemade Greek bomb.

As technology has improved and prices have decreased, police departments regularly are using video cameras as crime-fighting tools. At the Tarpon Springs Police Department, the cameras have become a tool in cases ranging from undercover drug busts to ordinance violations.

Officials with the department say tapes provide clear evidence of crimes and help police officers get criminals off the streets.

But some people criticize the use of video cameras. There are some legitimate occasions to videotape events, they say, but they complain that the Tarpon Springs department has overstepped its bounds.

George Farrell, a consultant working with the owners of Johnnie'$ Sports Bar & Grill, said it makes sense for police departments to use videotapes when they are trying to solve crimes. But he didn't like that the police department used video cameras to document activities in front of Johnnie'$, a business the department has wanted shut down.

The activities caught on camera there ranged from a robbery to alcohol consumption at a restaurant that doesn't have a license to serve it.

"Our problem is that we're being targeted," Farrell said. "My concern is, do we have a police department that's out of control?"

The Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos, a priest at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, has concerns about the police department using video cameras to tape portions of Greek Easter celebrations.

This kind of videotaping "is done in totalitarian states," he said. "My goodness, not in America."

"The best thing for the police department is to inform the people that if they use this kind of device (so-called Greek bombs), they are going to be punished," he said.

Police said they are cautious about respecting people's rights and only use the video cameras for legitimate police practices. Capt. Ron Holt pointed out that, in a public place, people have no right to privacy of their images.

The department only records conversations when there is a criminal investigation under way and someone involved in the conversation knows that sound is being recorded, he said.

He said the cameras are used in some instances when police anticipate there will be a problem.

During celebrations related to Greek Easter, police anticipate every year that people will set off homemade bombs because it is a tradition. This year, numerous bombs rocked Tarpon Springs and damaged several businesses. Police arrested 18-year-old John Himonetos after an officer identified him on videotape.

"It's probably one of the best tools we have for gathering evidence at crime scenes," Holt said.

Many departments mount the cameras inside police cruisers to tape traffic stops. Officers, including those in Tarpon Springs, also use small cameras to record undercover drug busts.

"The technology has progressed to the point where cameras can be used for a variety of different purposes," Pinellas County sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said. "We use them where we can within the law."

The Clearwater Police Department uses video cameras to record traffic stops and to document traffic and parking problems, spokesman Wayne Shelor said.

For example, Clearwater police taped parking problems at Cherry Harris Park and public drinking along the Courtney Campbell Parkway, Shelor said. In both instances, the tapes were used as documentation of the problems but did not lead to any arrests, he said.

"We don't use it with any frequency," Shelor said. "It has its place."

The Tarpon Springs Police Department uses cameras more frequently. Officers often use cameras to document crimes. At Johnnie'$, police used hidden cameras to record drug deals and other activities. They plan to show the tape, which clearly identifies several people, at a City Commission meeting May 30 as part of an effort to have the business declared a nuisance and shut down.

"It's very hard to dispute what's on that screen," said Tarpon Springs police Officer Ed Hayden.

Advocates of civil liberties say that police need to use caution when using video cameras.

Police can record scenes in public that they can see with their naked eye, but they don't necessarily have the right to use zoom lenses, said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. They can record in the streets and in public areas, but not looking into people's homes, he said.

Even when police adhere to those limits, though, the use of videotapes contributes to an erosion of privacy in this country, he said.

"It certainly perpetuates the feeling of Big Brotherism," he said.

Some police officers said they are aware of the need for caution when using video cameras. Hayden said video cameras are indispensable to police, but officers have to understand the limits.

"It'll be a very good tool," he said, "as long as police officers don't abuse it."