Eyes wide shut

Will downtown Tampa keep its surveillance cameras?

click to enlarge SOMETHING WAS WATCHING: One of two cameras installed in Curtis Hixon Park. They have been turned off till further notice. - Marci Richter
Marci Richter
SOMETHING WAS WATCHING: One of two cameras installed in Curtis Hixon Park. They have been turned off till further notice.

On the first day of March, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor stood before Tampa City Council and requested approval for a $2 million contract with the South Florida company Digital Aware to install downtown security cameras in advance of the Republican National Convention.

Council greeted most such requests about convention security with a virtual rubber stamp; after all, the money was not coming out of the city’s budget, but out of the $50 million provided by the Department of Justice. But this was one item that didn’t win an automatic yes.

As questions piled up about whether the city was going to make the camera installations permanent, some councilmembers suggested a delay before granting approval. But Chief Castor said the department was already behind schedule, and asked that the Council go ahead and approve the request.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bob Buckhorn made it clear to the Tampa Bay Times that the city plans to keep the cameras. But that doesn't mean that the debate about their utility and location is over. Next Thursday (Sept. 20) Council will hear from the public whether it's their preference to keep the cameras downtown, move them to other locations or dismantle them altogether. While Washington D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and other U.S. cities have sophisticated CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) systems, and history suggests that once a city installs such a program it rarely disables it, there are some people in Tampa who will advocate that they need to do exactly that.

Currently the cameras are dark, having shut down the night the convention ended. While privacy concerns have resurfaced, some Tampa residents have not only come out in favor of the cameras but have asked to have them moved to their neighborhoods, to monitor local parks or areas with illegal dumping.

Councilman Mike Suarez says those requests surprised him. “I think that most of us realize that we don’t like to be under surveillance all the time. I don’t think anyone likes that. But at the same time, if there are areas that we have identified [where] there’s maybe some criminal activity or some other things, maybe we should look to using cameras to help that out.”

Not surprisingly, Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants to retain the cameras downtown. Aware of the forthcoming discussion, he told CL on the morning after the RNC that he wanted to show individual councilmembers how “effective” the cameras were.

But how will that be measured?

Though predictions of 15,000 protesters descending on the RNC were misguided from the get-go, virtually everybody in the Bay area was shocked when only around 2,000 activists made their way to Tampa, resulting in an almost comically low total of two arrests.

Councilman Suarez says because law enforcement wasn’t severely challenged, he’s not sure whether the TPD can demonstrate how the technology was used to identify criminals.

On a philosophical level, Mayor Buckhorn is a fan. “I think it’s a great deterrent to crime,” he says.

The only councilmember who voted no back in March, Mary Mulhern, says people are becoming desensitized to the lack of privacy.

“I just don’t want to say, ‘Yeah, okay, there’s a potential benefit — of what? What is that benefit?” she asks.

This is not the first time Tampa has had to contend with the issue as a municipality. Twelve years ago, the city got the attention of civil libertarians across the country when it became the first local government to employ facial-recognition software to search for wanted criminals, installing 36 cameras in Ybor City.

But two years later, the city dropped the program without the software enabling the TPD to make a single arrest.

The cameras remain, however, and are used by TPD officials to monitor the action on Seventh Avenue Thursday through Saturday evenings when the bars close.

At the forefront in challenging the cameras then and now is the ACLU. Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for ACLU of Florida, says whenever such cameras are used for special events like political conventions, the Olympics or Super Bowls, they rarely are taken down afterwards.

“There’s an understandable impulse to cover our public places and streets with video surveillance,” he says, “but that’s wrong because it won’t make us any safer.”

The ACLU points to the potential for abuse that exists with this technology, citing a frequently invoked Detroit Free Press investigation. That report revealed law enforcement officers in Michigan using camera information to stalk women, threaten motorists after traffic altercations, and track estranged spouses.

Johnson also cites studies in Great Britain where surveillance systems have been found to focus disproportionately on people of color.

Another huge critic of the downtown cameras is Tampa native Jon Gales. He created a mobile app dubbed RNCCTV to map out the cameras online in the weeks preceding the convention. The app elicited national media coverage.

He says he’ll be speaking out at the City Council meeting later this month.

“The RNC is over and it’s now plainly obvious that the cameras weren’t even needed then,” he says, referring to the two arrests. “There are real privacy invasion issues with them, and nothing happened during that time that makes these cameras a requirement.”

As Councilwoman Yolie Capin pointed out during the original discussion of the issue last winter, such cameras are ubiquitous in our present culture. But she admits there’s a difference between cameras installed by private companies and those controlled by the government.

“I’m keeping an open mind,” she says now, at the same time expressing concerns about some of the other expensive items paid for by U.S. taxpayers that the Tampa Police now own. “Where is the end game?” she asks.

Councilwoman Lisa Montelione made a similar observation during the discussions last March, saying that it was important that to study how other cities have used such cameras after events like political conventions.

TPD spokesperson Laura McElroy says the department did extensive research into other cities’ use of such systems.

Councilman Harry Cohen said he’s anxious to hear from law enforcement before weighing in on the issue one way or another.

He’s likely to hear that the police department would like to keep them.

“The cameras were very effective during the event,” says McElroy. “They provided a bird’s-eye view for the commanders which helped with crowd management and also traffic flow.” But she added that if the Council were to reject any future use, “We’ll be just as effective policing our community and keeping it safe.”

When it comes to surveillance cameras, nobody uses more than Great Britain. Figures published by the Guardian last year estimated that there were 1.85 million such cameras in England, or one for every 32 people, with 11,000 alone in London’s tube network. Chicago has installed about 10,000 such cameras in the past few years.

But do such cameras actually help in decreasing crime? There are varying studies, but Mulhern, who used to work in Chicago, refers to that city’s escalating murder spree this year as an example that they’re no panacea in deterring crime.

A Sept. 2011 report by the Washington-based Urban Institute Justice Policy Center studied surveillance systems in Chicago, Baltimore and D.C. Results varied, with crime falling in some areas and remaining unchanged in others. The study said success or failure was often dictated by how the surveillance system was created and monitored, and how each city balanced privacy and security.

Video surveillance is a $3.2 billion industry, one-third of the overall security market, according to 2007 data from the Security Industry Association.

In post-9/11 America, civil libertarians say there is less resistance to such technology, which is regrettable, says Mike Pheneger, president of the Florida ACLU.

“It used to be that people guarded their privacy, but in a digital age, we all know how difficult that is. The privacy issue is a major one, and it’s almost like we’ve given up,” he says.

As Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, has written, “The terrible truth is that the death of privacy in America will not be accompanied by thunderous applause, but a collective yawn from an indifferent people. “

Joe Gales of RNCCCTV.com fame agrees that it’s rare to see a bureaucracy give up such a system once it’s installed, but believes if the citizenry makes its voice heard it’s possible that they could go away — if not now, then when the cameras' maintenance costs come up for refunding. And he brings up the legacy of what people will think of the convention in years to come.

“It would be a shame if the most visible lasting impact of the RNC were high-power CCTV cameras invading everyone’s privacy.”

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.