Thursday, December 6, 2012

Tampa City Council to review RNC surveillance cameras — next August

Posted By on Thu, Dec 6, 2012 at 12:31 PM

Last winter, the Tampa City Council authorized the use of $2 million in federal money for surveillance cameras to cover downtown Tampa during the Republican National Convention. That was the last time the Council had serious control over the cameras.

The Council debated the continued use of the cameras after the convention, with the ACLU and other civil libertarians agitating to get rid of the technology. Those requests fell on deaf ears, because it turns out the decision is strictly up to Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and he's already said he's not taking the cameras down.

For the past few months, the city's legal staff and police have been working on a policy for responsible use of the cameras. They presented the freshly crafted ordinance to the Council Thursday morning.

Police Chief Jane Castor said the control the 78 cameras downtown will be overseen by the Criminal Intelligence department, and the head of that department reports to the Chief herself. Castor said there would be no live monitoring except for weekend nights in Ybor (which has been the case for years), and for specific occasions, such as Gasparilla or other major events. The Chief said any individual monitoring the cameras will have a unique name and password to get into the system, making it easy for the department to know who is looking and at what time. She said these cameras are all aimed at the street level, and are "not aimed at anyone's windows or private areas."

There were some members of the public calling on the Council not to pass the Buckhorn administration proposed tweaking of the "peeping window" ordinance, with the ACLU's Yvonne Acosta MacMillan saying that under a part of the charter, "You have power to enact an ordinance that prohibits use of the camera."

That possibility was seized up by Councilwoman Mary Mulhern, a persistent critic of the cameras who was the only member of the board to vote against the cameras when it really mattered — last winter.

She began her comments by emphasizing that she wasn't being critical of Chief Castor or Mayor Buckhorn, but she still questioned the need for such technology."I haven't heard the case for this many surveillance cameras permanently in the city." And she wasn't impressed by Castor's remarks that Tampa is behind several other major cities in having established a robust surveillance system.

Castor said the only complaints that she's ever heard about the usage of the cameras from the public in Ybor City is when the cameras didn't cover a particular area of the district, or certain footage wasn't available. And she referenced how the recent capture of a man who assaulted a woman at the Fort Brooke parking garage was a result of security cameras.

Mulhern said that one example was important, adding that the studies she's seen says that camera have been effective in closed spaces. But she said that's why the Council needs more information on which to base a sound decision. "We're talking about government surveillance," she said. "I know London and New York and Chicago have these, that doesn't mean every city needs to follow suit with something that people don't really want." She said she wanted to delay the vote and conduct a workshop to hear from more experts on the issue, but her argument didn't win any converts.

Councilman Harry Cohen had a different suggestion: pass the ordinance, but hold a workshop next August, before the police and the administration need to come back before the board to get a renewal of a maintenance agreement for the cameras. The expiration of that agreement represents the next opportunity for the Council to ban the cameras

In the end, the Council sided with Cohen, passing the ordinance at hand but agreeing unanimously to review that contract next August.

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