TAMPA — Crime in downtown Tampa has dropped 23 percent since last year, and while police don't give all the credit to the surveillance cameras bought for the Republican National Convention, they're glad to have the technology.
"They're just another tool in our toolbox," police Capt. Mike Baumaister told the City Council on Thursday, adding that he thinks the cameras had an impact on downtown crime.
The reduction came in the total number of four serious crimes — burglary, robbery, auto burglary and car thefts — for the first seven months of 2013, compared with the same months last year. (Car thefts actually rose, but the others fell.)
That said, at least one council member remains leery of how the cameras tip the balance between enhancing public safety and protecting privacy.
"I just hope that we'll all do our research and think about them really hard" before voting on any future money to keep the system going, said council member Mary Mulhern, who cast the lone vote against buying the cameras in the first place. "I'm not comfortable with them."
Tampa spent $2 million from a $50 million federal security grant to buy the system for the RNC. It got 119 new cameras, 78 of which are focused on 58 different downtown locations. Six are trained on the Tampa Convention Center, while five are at the Tampa Bay History Center and five more cover Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
The cameras have stayed on since the convention, which took place a year ago this week. Police do not actively monitor them, but they can look at the video when a crime takes place.
That's what they did on Nov. 1, the day a homeless man grabbed, dragged, punched and groped a 63-year-old woman in the Fort Brooke parking garage.
Using the cameras, police spotted the suspect, who was wearing a torn T-shirt, then saw him throw away the shirt and later found him at a city park.
"If those cameras were not in place, we probably would not have identified him as quickly," Baumaister said.
Police have put the trailer-mounted cameras, along with big banners and blue lights, in the parking lots of stores with shoplifting problems and have seen thefts drop.
The mobile cameras have helped catch a car burglar at Patriot Park and find a motorcyclist dragged into the grass by a hit-and-run vehicle. They have been loaned to St. Petersburg for the Grand Prix and to police in Boca Raton for a political event.
While the cameras have been used to identify burglary suspects, Baumaister couldn't say how many times their use has paid off like that.
"I think we need to know that," Mulhern said. "When we're asked to appropriate money for this, we need to know that they're being effective."
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In coming months, city officials expect to propose spending an estimated $164,000 annually to maintain them and $22,000 to license the system's software.
Also important to consider, said council member Harry Cohen, are cases like the Boston Marathon bombing where surveillance cameras played key roles in events.
Mulhern and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida have talked about needing to write policies regulating the use of the cameras, but police say they already have.
Under the policy, none of the system's resources, including the trailer-mounted cameras, can be used without the approval of criminal intelligence command staff.
In addition, anyone using the system must have a unique user name and password. The system tracks what each user looks at, so there is a record if someone uses the system for non-police business. The camera system can't listen to or record audio.
Police store video for 30 days. After that, files are released to be used again unless they are being saved as evidence. Except for evidence, no video is retained for more than 120 days.
Council member Frank Reddick zeroed in on the use of cameras to help with crowd management this summer at Rowlett Park. People pay to rent those picnic shelters, he said, and suggested that having the park under video surveillance creates a "police state" where people are "spied on."
The cameras were not in the shelters, but in areas were people gather, officials said, and, in any case, the park is a public place.
"These days, when people are out in public, they should not be surprised if there's a camera — be it a government camera, private camera or someone with a cellphone," assistant city attorney Rebecca Kert said. "That's the reality of the world today."