Downtown surveillance cameras not an invasion of privacy

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:52 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Although I have the highest regard for Mayor Hindman, he and I are not always on the same page in determining that which is best for Columbia. Agree with him or not, he has served four terms in an unpaid, largely thankless position with but one objective–working toward the best interests of the city as he believes them to be. For this and for taking full responsibility for his decisions, he has earned our respect.

Chief among my differences with him have been the blanket anti-smoking ordinance, the need for a citizens' police review board and his insatiable affinity for bicycles, trails and green spaces–these last three at the detriment of motorized traffic which provides far more economic benefit to the community. Conversely, I have supported him editorially and vocally in the area of nuclear power as a clean energy source and in the use of red light cameras at high traffic intersections.

I am also in his corner for installing mobile surveillance cameras in downtown Columbia. There is obviously a cost factor in purchasing and installing these devices and the Columbia City Council and the public as well would be remiss if this is not considered by those who draw up the city’s budget along with those who whose taxes will fund them. But, where public safety is concerned, the city must err on the side of individual protection and crime deterrence whenever possible.

Abundant evidence is available that surveillance cameras in public and private locations have recorded success in the arrest and prosecution of those individuals captured on tape in the commission of armed robberies, strong-arm robberies and assaults. We have a representative example of their effectiveness locally in the June 6 attack on a 25-year-old male in the 10th Street parking garage–the cameras recorded the 1 a.m. assault on Adam Taylor and the film led to the apprehension and prosecution of the offenders.

Surveillance cameras in banks, malls, convenience stores and other private and public arenas continue to record criminal activity and are invaluable in identifying and capturing suspects. As it is obvious that no incorporated municipality can provide a blanket police presence and, that it is equally apparent that thuggish, gang-related criminal activity is on the rise, why is there resistance to the use of available and proven to be effective electronic surveillance in high crime areas?

In addition to the cautions over the cost of the equipment, the major resistance to the downtown cameras is articulated in the issues of individual privacy and the lack of comparative data attesting to their effectiveness in deterring criminals or assisting in their apprehension. As to the purported lack of data, I give it short inasmuch as we are dealing with an unquantifiable and rather inane issue. They have proven successful in other venues, why would they be an less effective on the streets?

Several citizens, most notably councilman Karl Skala, have raised the issue of this surveillance being an invasion of privacy. As there is no mention, per se, of privacy in the Constitution, I assume the objection is based on the Fourth Amendment “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause but upon probable cause.”

Accordingly, if no expectation of privacy exists in parking garages, banks, convenience stores, or malls, why then must it obtain on the streets of Columbia or any other city? As I read and interpret the Constitution and applicable law, probable cause does not occur until there is evidence of an overt or suspicious act. Whether being surveyed in a restaurant, the local 7-11, the Columbia Mall, Macy’s or at the intersection of Broadway and Ninth Street, there is no difference whatsoever in the right to privacy.

Other than in one’s person, papers and effects, there is no expectation of privacy in public–whether in view of other people or cameras, every move is visible. The right to privacy enjoyed in one’s home does not extend to the streets. The key words or phrases are “probable cause” and “unreasonable searches and seizures”, i.e., mere public observation cannot be classified as unreasonable and no search or seizure will take place without the probable cause--criminal behavior.

Methinks those who believe the authorities will view the films to identify and apprehend citizens for violations of open container laws, littering, public inebriation or other minor offenses are a bit paranoid. Citizens who habitually behave themselves in public need not fear the camera–efforts to decrease crime in the interests of public safety are appreciated.

The two groups adamantly opposed to the downtown surveillance cameras could not be more different–the ultra-libertarian whose opposition is one of principle and the criminal whose livelihood is threatened. Need I say more?

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at


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