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Tampa looks to spend $4M on surveillance cameras and police gear for RNC

Published Mar. 1, 2012

TAMPA — The City Council will be asked today to spend nearly $4 million on downtown surveillance cameras and police gear for the Republican National Convention.

A $2 million camera contract would go to Aware Digital, based north of Miami. Police have said they want about 60 cameras around downtown for the August convention.

Tampa would pay $1.9 million to Safeware Inc. of Landover, Md., for protective equipment — such as helmets, face shields and body armor — to outfit officers working crowd control during the convention.

"It'll be the basic crowd management gear, protective gear, that officers use," police Chief Jane Castor said.

Funds for both purchases will come from a $50 million federal grant that Tampa is receiving to pay for convention security.

The surveillance camera contract was filed with the city clerk's office Wednesday, and officials say council members shouldn't delay a vote.

"It is absolutely essential that this system is approved ASAP to allow sufficient time for system design, configuration, installation and testing as quickly as possible," Castor wrote in a memo to the council.

"Every day that goes by is one day that we have less in preparation," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.

It will take time to get the cameras in place, to work out any kinks and to train officers to use them, Buckhorn said. He said he would have loved to get a contract to the council months ago. But he couldn't because the city had to rebid it after the first round came in at more than twice what officials thought was reasonable.

"I wish we had more time and they had more time to digest it, but the reality is that we can't waste a day," Buckhorn said.

In addition to the cameras, Aware Digital would provide a wireless mesh network, data storage and a video management system to cover the area around the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

During the convention there, the cameras would provide real-time views of crowds and traffic so police could be quickly dispatched to hot spots. The cameras also would record images of illegal activity, which could be used as evidence in court later.

Aware Digital's deadline for a working system would be July 1, with a $500 per day penalty for every day the company is late.

But while city officials say time is of the essence, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney said "there's no reason for that kind of urgency when the convention is still six months away."

The ACLU contends the city shouldn't have surveillance cameras permanently focused after the convention on neighborhoods, especially downtown where crime is low, said John Dingfelder, a former City Council member who is the ACLU's senior staff attorney for mid-Florida.

"There's a lot of people who live downtown and in Channelside whose privacy will be affected by these cameras, especially if they leave them up permanently," Dingfelder said.

Buckhorn said questions about how the cameras would be used after the convention can be answered "down the road."

The convention, scheduled for Aug. 27-30, is expected to attract up to 15,000 protesters. Officials say Tampa police and Hillsborough sheriff's deputies — officers with local ties and a stake in how their hometown is seen — will be assigned to work with the crowds.

On Tuesday, police said details of the Safeware purchase were exempt from disclosure under Florida's Public Records Law because they concern security system plans. But when Castor briefed council members Wednesday, she provided the information they requested.

"She answered all of my questions, and she was very open about what the purpose of the purchase was," council member Mike Suarez said. "There was nothing there that made me say, 'Wait, why are we buying this?' "

By comparison, city officials in Charlotte, N.C., the site of this year's Democratic National Convention, have disclosed less about their security spending.

In January, the Charlotte Observer reported that Charlotte police planned to spend up to half of the city's $50 million federal security grant on technology and equipment, but the purchases would not go before Charlotte City Council for the usual public vote.

That's because the council voted the year before to give the Charlotte city manager the authority to approve convention-related contracts without saying what they were for, the Observer reported. More recently, Charlotte police have disclosed spending $1.73 million on a convention command center and $131,000 on motorcycle equipment.

It is not unusual for host cities to feel some tension between the secrecy that goes with planning a high-security event and the openness that comes with telling residents about how public funds will be spent.

Denver, which hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2008, was sued by the ACLU in an attempt to get details of security spending there.

Denver ended up disclosing general information on its expenditures, partly to dispel rumors that it had bought a "sonic ray gun."

In a formal statement, the Denver mayor also said police were not buying weapons to immobilize protesters by spraying them with goo or slime.

While federal officials typically disclose few details about security plans for national political conventions, Tampa officials say they are trying strike the appropriate balance.

"Much to the chagrin of the Secret Service, we have been very transparent," Buckhorn said. "I understand they have their job, but I also have my job and (Castor) has her job, and our job is to make sure our citizens know what we're doing and why we're doing it to the extent possible."

If the City Council approves both purchases, Tampa's convention-related security spending will total $6.7 million so far.

Paying for all of this will be the $50 million convention security grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Police expect to use up to two-thirds of the grant to pay, house and feed about 3,000 law enforcement officers who will be brought in from agencies throughout Florida to help police the convention.

The Department of Justice grant is not expected to cover the cost of deploying up to 1,700 Florida National Guard troops to Tampa. Instead, the Pentagon typically pays for Guard operations at national political conventions.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

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