by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
At the July 20 Columbia City Council meeting, Adam and Karen Taylor requested that council members reconsider a proposal to install city-owned video surveillance cameras in the downtown area, a measure that had been previously voted down by council members largely because it was feared such surveillance would violate the privacy rights of residents.
Adam Taylor was the victim of a brutal attack in a city parking garage, a case that was largely solved because it had been captured on video. Speaking directly to the issue of balancing public safety with the right to privacy, Adam and his mother, Karen, made compelling arguments for city cameras in the downtown area, a project that had been in the works for some time before being squashed by the council in April; money had already been allocated, and a pilot project had been conducted in the spring.
Since then the Taylors have taken their case to the public with a Web site, www.keepcolumbiasafe.com, a Facebook page, Twitter tweets and various media appearances. The people of Columbia have reacted overwhelmingly to their cause. More than 1,600 people have participated in their online survey, 91 percent of whom support the use of mobile video cameras downtown.
Those concerned about privacy rights have good reason to react negatively to any proposal for governmental monitoring of our activities. It seems like each month we learn of some secret, and often patently illegal, government program to collect information about us, supposedly justified in the name of national security and keeping us safe. And I count myself among the officially paranoid about the amount of information my government collects and keeps about law-abiding citizens.
However, I see little to fear from the proposal to install security cameras downtown.
First, the areas targeted for camera deployment are used primarily for business or governmental activities. Cameras are not going to be placed in residential areas.
Second, there are already lots of cameras installed downtown by public institutions and private businesses. Images of Columbians wandering about downtown are already being recorded each day. And in the case of recording by a private landowner or business, there is little control over how that recording is used, how long it is kept or who has access to it. It can be used for market research, for analyzing the flow of customers to and from a store, for training personnel or even uploaded to the Internet.
Cameras that are city-owned and -operated can be restricted and regulated in ways that private cameras cannot, giving us an opportunity to strike a balance between privacy rights and public safety. The following policies and procedures would address the valid privacy concerns that I have heard regarding downtown cameras:
? Cameras should be deployed only in areas of the city where the main activity is commercial, governmental or educational.
? No cameras should be aimed in such a way as to see inside a private residence, such as through an open door or window.
? Recordings should be automatically destroyed after a number of days or weeks unless they are needed for a criminal investigation.
? Recordings should be used only for criminal investigations. I don’t know if this is possible — such recordings might be subject to subpoena in a civil case — but the intent of all recordings should be for use in a public trial, be it criminal or civil.
? Recordings should be viewed only after a crime has been reported via other means. In other words, the police can’t just have someone review recordings to see whom they can catch jaywalking, littering, parking without paying the meter or doing something else that might be technically illegal.
Recordings cannot be sold or distributed for any other purpose.
With such policies in place, I don’t see how cameras in the downtown area would interfere with an individual’s privacy rights or with the right to assemble. They certainly have the potential to increase public safety and make downtown a desirable place to spend time and money.
The Taylors are considering whether to use the initiative petition process to override the council’s camera vote. If such an effort moves forward, it should have little problem obtaining the signatures needed to place it on the April 2010 ballot. I imagine it would pass with a strong margin.
In the long run, originating a program for city surveillance cameras in the downtown area via a public petition and public vote might be the best way to deal with the issue. Then it will be members of the public, rather than the council, who will decide whether they want to be recorded while they are downtown.
But in the short term, this issue is sure to loom large in the upcoming mayoral and city council races.
By the way, if you’re interested in a hearing a well-reasoned debate on whether the right to privacy is protected by the Constitution, plan to attend the League of Women Voters Constitution Day event at 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at the top of the Tiger Hotel.
Professors Mark Carroll and Christina Wells will present different sides of the issue. For more information, contact Bertrice Bartlett at (573) 442-5549.