During the campaign to authorize the use of government surveillance cameras in Downtown Columbia, the voters were sold a bill of goods by Keep Columbia Safe and the camera proponents within the city bureaucracy. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, now that the cameras are in place, the final product looks quite different than what was proposed.
It is important to note that while the Prop 1 initiative and the ordinance it produced merely authorized the installation and use of cameras, it has been interpreted as a mandate for action. If we are to accept the ordinance as a command to action, it is important that the camera parameters that were spelled out during the campaign and in the ordinance be strictly adhered to.
Unfortunately, the city has ignored the will of the voters and, in a series of bureaucratic head-fakes reminiscent of the events surrounding the building of our behemoth, eyesore parking garage, the will of the voters and the ordinance itself have been repeatedly and summarily ignored.
During the campaign, the proposed camera system was repeatedly estimated at a cost around $50,000 for the first year. Based on that number, The District offered to fit half of the bill for the first year and so budgeted $25,000 of their special tax funds for the project. When it was all said and done and the council voted to install the cameras, the price tag was actually $75,000 per year, a 50% increase.
This may seem trivial when considering a tax funded, government program. After all, it’s rare for a government program to come in at or under budget, but this budget was important to the debate that formed voter opinion. When camera opponents argued that an additional officer would be a better use of public funds, camera proponents made the claim that the salary and training costs, estimated at $125,000, involved in hiring an officer were far more than the relatively inexpensive, estimated $50,000 price tag for the cameras. Had the proponents been honest with the cost and the gap between camera cost and officer cost been narrowed, many fiscally concerned voters may have voted against the cameras.
The camera ordinance states that, “Downtown safety cameras may only be deployed so as to be conspicuous…”
This has been a point of contention since the moment of installation. Before they were installed, Lt. Chris Kelly of the Downtown Unit told the Tribune that the plan was “to keep them unmarked, or ‘plain Jane,’ so the cameras blend in with the environment.”
Lt. Kelly later claimed that he was quoted out of context, but I can’t imagine a context that would change the meaning of those words. In reaction to his foot-in-mouth moment, Lt. Kelly announced that his camouflaged cameras would be adorned with a CPD logo to make them “conspicuous.”
Even with the 5 inch CPD stickers, the cameras are still not easy to spot if one is not consciously looking for them. During a visit to Tom Bradley‘s morning radio show on September 21st, 2011, CPD Public Information Officer Jill Weineke stated that the cameras are small and that she often has to point them out to people. I guess Jill hasn’t read the ordinance.
The Live Feed:
Again, during the campaign, camera proponents promised one thing but the city did another. The folks at Keep Columbia Safe repeatedly poopooed fears articulated by civil libertarians, myself included, that the cameras would be used for live, Orwellian surveillance. Proponents claimed that the police did not have the time or resources to play Big Brother and monitor law abiding citizens on the city streets. They claimed plainly that the cameras would only be used as recording devices and that those recordings would only be accessed in search of evidence if a crime was committed and voters made up their minds based on these claims. Only a few short months after installation, it came to light that the live feed from the cameras was being monitored by the CPD.
It all boils down to the fact that camera proponents lied to the voters. As Dan Viets so eloquently pointed out, “A campaign promise is sacred.”
Thanks to Citizens For Justice for this footage.
As Mitch Richards pointed out in his address to the Columbia City Council, there is a stationary camera pointed Directly at The Blue Fugue, a bar that is a popular meeting place for liberty advocates. The Blue Fugue is among the safest establishments in town, and sees none of the violent crime that might merit government surveillance, especially when compared with other bars in the area.
So why point a camera directly at The Blue Fugue? I won’t venture a guess at the official explanation, but it is important to note that the CPD has a history of intimidating those who dare to criticize the department. For proof, one need look no further than the case of Greg Williams and Officer Robert Fox. Mr. Williams participated in a protest against the use of SWAT dynamic entries for the service of search warrants for non-violent crimes like Columbia’s infamous Kinloch Ct. SWAT raid. Officer Fox, and probably other officers, ran police background checks on the protesters. This came to light after Officer Fox released Mr. Williams’s juvenile record in the Tribune’s online comment section. Most of the stories regarding the indecent focused on the criminal release of sealed juvenile records in an attempt to discredit a protester who was merely exercising the most basic of American liberties. What the media accounts failed to recognize was that the CPD was running background checks on law-abiding citizens who dare to speak up and speak out when they see their public servant police force violating civil rights.
With this in mind, it is not much of a stretch to imagine how this camera system might be used to intimidate the public and ultimately violate the First Amendment. Let’s not forget that the American Revolution and our beloved Bill of Rights was fomented over a few pints of ale in a few New England pubs.