LETTER: Surveillance cameras are not the answer

Monday, August 24, 2009 | 4:10 p.m. CDT; updated 10:29 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The recent attack on Adam Taylor was a terrible crime, and I am glad that he has recovered from his injuries. I am also very glad that the surveillance cameras in the parking garage helped the police identify and arrest the perpetrators. I have always supported the use of surveillance cameras in city-owned parking garages. Although they may not deter crime, as in Adam’s case, they can certainly help the police, after the fact. However, I do not support government sponsored and taxpayer financed downtown surveillance cameras placed in high visibility public areas such as our streets and sidewalks for three reasons:

1.) Existing comparative data do not demonstrate significant positive effects on crime deterrence or apprehension with continuous public surveillance in high visibility, high traffic areas, such as public streets and sidewalks. What does have a significant effect on both deterrence and apprehension is a significant police presence.

2.) The data also suggests that the cost of general surveillance camera programs may be a waste of limited public safety resources, when compared to the value and flexibility of an increased police presence downtown. That is one reason why, after two public hearings and a scheduled public comment on the matter, the City Council voted against reconsideration of funding the program.  There is simply no effective substitute for well-trained, dedicated and strategically deployed police officers. I firmly believe that local public safety policies ought to be data driven and optimized with regard to both effectiveness and cost. Accordingly, surveillance cameras have long been used in city-owned, high-risk properties such as parking facilities. Real police presence in the downtown area has also been significantly enhanced, consistent with the Columbia Police Department’s new data and resource driven policy of “geographic policing.” Concurrently, I would encourage the downtown merchants and property owners to make their own decisions with respect to the benefits and costs of private property surveillance.

3.) There is no "probable cause” associated with continuous general public surveillance. Without “probable cause” citizens do have a "right to privacy" conferred by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against unreasonable searches and seizures, even in public areas. Nonetheless, I continue to support the use of city surveillance cameras in high-risk public areas such as city parking garages, where probable cause is likely to exist because of poor sight lines, limited public activity, etc. As the record indicates, I have voted accordingly.

Karl Skala is the Third Ward representative to the City Council.


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