COLUMN: Surveillance cameras will improve safety in downtown Columbia

Thursday, December 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:13 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 10, 2009

This is where my political road departs from my liberal brethren and the conservative paranoids. It is not 1984. It is not Big Brother. And despite what the American Civil Liberties Union says, and I am a dues-paying member, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that what happens on the public streets and sidewalks is not private. This ain’t Vegas.

So why are so many voices against security cameras on public streets in downtown Columbia to aid in the apprehension of those who break the law? The cameras are a tool, adding another set of eyes to keep our streets safe.

Why is our city council so adamant that the safety of our citizens is secondary to the budget, especially when the council had already appropriated the money? Ninety-one percent of the citizens of Columbia and businesses of “The District” (how I hate that moniker) see the use of such cameras as a good thing, according to a poll hosted by the group Keep Columbia Safe.

The group's name echoes the intention of the petition to require the City Council to consider downtown cameras.

Why would members of council, especially those who wish to run for Darwin Hindman’s mayoral seat in April, make this a privacy and money issue? That is just stupid.

Do citizens complain when they enter a retail store with cameras facing every direction but up? Or with cameras facing parking lots, watching cars come and go, searching for cars parked in spaces reserved for the disabled without a license or hangtag? Or left running with the 5-year-old sitting inside – alone? No.

If you are afraid of losing your privacy or being followed by “the man,” you need to stay home.

You will want to stay out of downtown St. Louis. The Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, which includes the new Busch Stadium, operates its own surveillance system, contacting the St. Louis Police Department when needed, a spokesperson said in a phone interview. Stay out of Kansas City, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago … Cameras cameras everywhere. Smile.

Do you want to know if security cameras work? I asked LinkedIn users about experiences around the world. The Cape Town Partnership’s (South Africa) CEO Michael Farr said crime is down 46 percent in the downtown business district with security cameras “seen as one of the principal reasons for crime levels declining.” Deterrent, maybe. Crime stopper, absolutely.

Pittsburgh’s security camera program, though short-lived, has been deemed a success, according to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s spokesperson, Joanna Doven.  

Tim Tymchyshyn, IT manager in Saskatchewan, Canada, brought up yet another advantage for the use of security cameras. He suggested that, in addition to catching the bad guys, cameras would also, “protect the police and protect who is being arrested.”

So, what’s the problem? More than likely distrust of government in general and of the Columbia Police Department in particular, as noted with the demand for, and establishment of, the Police Review Board. Not to say that all cops are the nicest guys and gals on the planet and that there are no rotten apples in the bunch. But to distrust the entire department for the actions of few makes little sense.

The second problem is a misbelief that everything we do is somehow private, even when done in public locations. Ask me about the woman screaming into her telephone in a checkout line. I now know everything about her husband’s sordid affair with a waitress. In fact, I could write about the affair in this column. It is now public.

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton has said that the cameras have a deterrent effect. Others suggest that cameras will provoke people to commit crimes while seeking 15-seconds of fame. I respectfully disagree with both statements. The cameras are a tool, an extra set of eyes for public safety. And if somebody wants to “perform” for the camera, he deserves to be jailed.

Carrie Gartner, executive director of “The District,” said that the special business district and its members were and are willing to meet the city halfway to foot the cost of the mobile security cameras. That leaves the city with a $25,000 outlay, a smaller financial impact than suggested by Fourth Ward councilman and mayoral candidate Jerry Wade.

Let’s review: City owned cameras have already proved themselves as a crime-fighting tool. An advocacy group has found that 91 percent of Columbians want security cameras in the downtown shopping district. Downtown business owners will help pay for them.

So why does our council not care to follow the wishes of their constituents? Mr. Wade?

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. Read his blog at He welcomes your comments at

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John Schultz December 10, 2009 | 9:58 a.m.

Golly gee Dave, that sure sounds like a self-selected poll to me. Do you think that just maybe the majority of people visiting the Keep Columbia Safe website might already be inclined to vote yes in that poll?

You mention the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis. Here is some text from that website:

"The Partnership for Downtown St. Louis (The Partnership) is a private, not-for-profit organization representing its members in pursuit of a healthy and vital downtown. The Partnership is a leadership organization, addressing planning, legislation, transportation, economic development and numerous public and private initiatives that strengthen the business and residential community, improve the physical environment and enhance the image of downtown St. Louis.

The Partnership also manages the Downtown St. Louis Community Improvement District (The CID) that provides enhanced services to make downtown St. Louis a cleaner, safer and more vibrant place."

You know what I take from that? It's private (not government) and is somewhat akin to the Special Business District. That gets back to Laura Nauser's questioning of Carrie Gartner at Monday's hearing, which I would summarize as "Why should tax payers pay for cameras to benefit downtown? Why can't downtown pay for its own cameras?" And don't say downtown business owners have offered to pay for the cameras! Gartner has said the pledged $25K is a one-time donation, check the minutes from Monday's council meeting.

David, you seem to think that the council should kowtow to the whim of the downtown business owners and Carrie Gartner. Doesn't the rest of Columbia matter in the equation? The fact is these cameras won't reduce crime substantially (you might remember that criminals still target convenience stores and banks, and we see their pictures afterwards) and to fully cover downtown will take dozens if not more of these mobile cameras.

The biggest thing people seem to be mentioning, and I have to keep blaring (although kudos to KFRU's David Lile for mentioning this on his show today) is that this ballot issue won't do squat to provide funding or require a contract for camera systems. A future council is still free to reject these cameras, even if the ordinance is passed by voters and becomes law. This is essentially a big opinion poll with no real effect, although there are some who think it is being pushed as a wedge issue for the April elections. It will only be a wedge if pushed by people who are ignorant on what the ordinance will truly (not) do.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox December 10, 2009 | 11:51 a.m.

Not sure why otherwise normal people are so opposed to catching and prosecuting criminals and or reducing crime. Not sure how they argue numbers with opinions, someone says cameras dropped crime in a specific area 46% and then John says they won't do anything, his supporting evidence nothing just his opinion. Well huh, someone who supports his arguments with opinions and then accuses others of being ignorant, that's rich.

Oh and I am neither a downtown business owner or Carrie Gartner. So you would define whim as something that is ongoing, supported by the community and fully discussed?
Buy a dictionary.

I vote, pay taxes, and I'm for the cameras.

(Report Comment)
Glenn Rice December 10, 2009 | 1:07 p.m.

The mobile cameras would be leased (an annual outlay, not a one-time $25,000 fee) from some out-of-town company, to reap an unproven "benefit" for a small minority of the city's area. This is nothing but a waste of money.

I vote, pay taxes, and I'm against the cameras.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 10, 2009 | 1:31 p.m.

Eric, the numbers that Laura Nauser presented during the council meeting showed that downtown is not as crime-ridden as people think, and that particular beat (00) also includes the Douglass Park area and other parts of town around downtown. If I recall correctly, she said 9% of crime occurs in that beat (again, not just downtown). Why should tax payers provide security cameras for downtown when the individual business owners could do it now. SBD could spend that $25K they allocated RIGHT NOW, but if they don't that seems to indicate the problem isn't as bad as they say or they want their handout.

As for crime not being deterred by cameras, check out some of the studies that Karl Skala has mentioned when this topic came up during Monday's council meeting, as well as other times. I trust those numbers a lot more than Rosman's anecdotal numbers from some LinkedIn contacts.

If you want cameras in downtown, you better be prepared to buy them or run for council. Again, this ordinance does NOTHING to buy them.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 10, 2009 | 1:47 p.m.

Considering any violent crimes, (or even petty stuff), that's taken place in "the District" during 2009, how much would have actually been thwarted, diminished or solved if more cameras were up and running?
I say, put up as many cameras as you want as long as the private business owners or property managers foot the entire bill.
All this hoopla seems to be more for publicity or serves as an ambiance creator for "The District" rather then addressing any real, tangible crime issues in this elite part of town.
As for me, I need to take my junkyard dog, Gunther, for a walk down 9th Street.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox December 10, 2009 | 3:23 p.m.

Why should taxpayers supply money for road checks, hand guns, tazers, bullet proof vests, pepper spray or the 911 system. Most incidents involving the police never involve the use of their side arm, I bet the number of times police need to draw their side arm is under 1% making the bullet proof vest even more unnecessary. A lot of tax money comes from the well to do areas but a lot of the crime is in the improvised areas, why should they need to pay extra to patrol those areas. I mean what does 911 do to deter crime not a damn thing, hell I've never used it, most people don't lets cut it. I'm just taking the logic you have presented and extending it a bit I think it works, if it doesn't benefit over 50% of the population cut it. How many people use the street you live on, not 9% stop maintenance now. Boy the city is going to save a ton of money using this method. I feel the same way I don't have kids, and if you do and want them educated, I think that's fine as long as you pay for it.

Now for reality, considering the tax burden placed on small business your call for them to pay for the cameras falls flat, if the money they payed in taxes only went to policing "The District" and improving "The District" you all would be crying a river. And the cameras would have been up years ago.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 10, 2009 | 3:43 p.m.

Eric, now you're getting silly. People expect police officers to be well-equipped by the city. You're not extending my logic one bit by going down that route. And guess what, I am paying to have my kids educated privately instead of asking you to cough up more money for them.

I'm pretty sure Wal-Mart and the banks downtown are taxed more heavily than any single downtown business, and they still afford private surveillance cameras. Ditto for the hotels and convenience stores around town. Tax money is limited and why should it be spent somewhere that does not have the preponderance of crime? I would rather see that money go to hiring more officers than a camera system that isn't going to do as effective a job. Check out Chief Burton's comments about how many cameras would be required to replace the downtown squad of six officers, I think he answered over 50, if not more. I believe it was in reference to a question from Paul Love during the public comment session.

I'm not anti-safety or anti-spending, I am about fiscal responsibility. The city has a limited amount of money and should spend it wisely. If downtown thinks they need some cameras, they can buy them. With the numbers downtown, they could probably band together and buy a lot of smaller systems pretty cheaply.

Attention for any Missourian staffers reading this, I think a real cool story would be finding out just how many PRIVATE surveillance cameras are already being used downtown to keep those properties safe...

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 10, 2009 | 4:11 p.m.

In a progressively-run world, every situation and decision has its own unique socio-economic and political ramifications and nuances.
(Sorry, but the attempt to broad brush will not win me over in this situation.)
Try floating government-paid surveillance cameras downtown plus installation of government-paid surveillance cameras on every street in Columbia and see how far you get with that.
After all, if "The District" gets them, wouldn't everyone want one?
I'd suddenly feel so much less safe without them on my block.
In fact, how about less cops and more cameras?
Isn't technology wonderful?
Think of all the money we'd save on payroll and tasers and guns and police cars plus we wouldn't have those pesky cops looking over our shoulders. And remember, cameras don't profile or discriminate.
Vote yes for city-paid surveillance cameras blanketing every city street in town. Heck, while we're at it, I think we should also have at least one city-paid surveillance camera aimed at each and every bicycle tattoo logo on our roads; just in case there might be some random rash acts of graffiti artist overlays. You know, a lot of money was spent on those bicycle tags and they need to be protected from graffiti artists.
(Cameras'll take care of that threat, you betcha.)
Gotta go. Gunther needs another walk.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox December 10, 2009 | 4:52 p.m.

You're comparing cameras to cops? 50 Cameras for all practical purposes should cost far less than six cops, they also work 24 hours a day, obviously the surveillance power of six cops can't hold a candle to 50 cameras, cameras don't get distracted, don't mix up facts and almost never get sued for tazing someone. On the flip side cameras can't stop a crime in progress, yet all banks have cameras and only a small few have guards. There is also the fact that very few crimes are stopped in progress by the police.

Of course the whole first paragraph was silly I thought it was quite obvious I was pointing out that your argument applied to anything else would also cause us to stop spending tax money for it's continuation. And considering the obvious sarcastic nature of the entire post I don't think it's necessary to point out that you send you children to private school, especially since private schools still get federal money. However just like I don't mind being taxed for the cameras I think I still benefit from an educated society and don't mind being taxed for education. And I still think the CPD should get vests, weapons, pepper spray, radios and even patrol cars, even though I have never seen a CPD officer in my neighborhood.

And I still support the cameras, I think downtown is full of college students, throw in some thugs from the government crime creation camp and I see problems waiting to happen. I know the CPD has gotten things under control better now that Athena (and whatever that place was that Demarre Carroll got wounded from hand gun fire in front of) are closed. But these situations are going to come up again and I think the cameras are a great way to deter that from happening.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox December 10, 2009 | 4:59 p.m.

Have a good walk ray hope nobody gives you and that mutt the Ken Heitholt treatment, without the cameras we may never know who did it, we may lock some kids up for the crime but we won't know for sure that we aren't punishing the wrong people and a killer(s) roams free. Oh and wrap up it's cold out there you'll catch your death.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin December 10, 2009 | 5:10 p.m.

We have a new poll up on this issue:

Will you vote Yes or No for downtown surveillance cameras?

Please do vote!

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 10, 2009 | 6:26 p.m.

("But these situations are going to come up again and I think the cameras are a great way to deter that from happening.")
Lot of good it did to "deter" Knock out King's.
(Whatever happened to implementing curfews? Why'd "MOM" choose to advocate for "District" cameras instead of curfews?)
Personally, I think the best way to deter some crime downtown would be to have a "dry" downtown and allow college students to drink on campus having the MU police department handle student infractions. But heck, bars and clubs are looking to make money off of this college town. Should be up to private bouncers to deter fights, shootings and crime, anyway.
Also for the gangbanging crowd, give citizens training in self-defense and street smarts, report gang activity, retrain cops to work with citizens, expand citizen crime watch and neighborhood patrol groups. Watch any significant crime rates decline as some criminals just might think twice.
(Most bullies will back down if they know you're not an easy mark. However, no matter what, some emotional-crazed, druggies, scammers, and drunks will always continue to "act-out," cameras or not, IMHO.)
I'm just not certain that "at the public expense" is the best way to go, here.
Again, for downtown, let the property owners and businesses pay for any additional cameras in hopes of making "their District" feel safer. As for me, I'd rather see people working together, visually and physically looking out for their own neighbors, their own businesses, their own properties. I'm just against expensive publicly funded "scarecrow" technology for this specific unwarranted area of town. (P&R can put all the cameras they want on ARC or Douglass Park property for all I care.) In case of downtown, the numbers and the tone just doesn't work for me.
(I also think cameras are the cowards way out to handling "safety" issues and actually provides a false sense of security.)
We need to improve empowering our law-abiding citizens with self-confidence and create cooperation between the police & residents.
Cameras are way too impersonal and expensive for me.
Let "the District" pay for it, if they want it so bad.
(Bring back the Twiight festivals and I just might change my mind about that taxpayer-paid money thingy, though.)

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox December 10, 2009 | 7:17 p.m.

Good call Ray lets close down a huge amount of business downtown, put lots of people out of work, move the drinking onto campus where the average age of residents is under 21, and encourage free for all melee in the streets with the occasional shootout. You should run for mayor.

Bullies steal your lunch money they don't knock you unconscious and kick you 4 times, they don't beat you with a tire iron and choke you to death with your own belt, and they don't stab you to death stuff you in the trunk of your car and set it on fire.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 10, 2009 | 8:16 p.m.

("Good call Ray lets close down a huge amount of business downtown, put lots of people out of work, move the drinking onto campus where the average age of residents is under 21, and encourage free for all melee in the streets with the occasional shootout.")
Never said "we" should do that.
What I said was, ("Personally, I think the best way to deter some crime downtown would be to have a "dry" downtown and allow college students to drink on campus having the MU police department handle student infractions. But heck, bars and clubs are looking to make money off of this college town. Should be up to private bouncers to deter fights, shootings and crime, anyway.")
And yes, I personally wouldn't mind a downtown without all those "wild" college kids carrying on and such, before "feeling" safer with more surveillance cameras.
My point is that the MU police should have more responsibility in this part. Those young-uns sowing their wild oats are putting way too much of a strain on our community's police department, taking away from policing residential areas, and now you want public-funded cameras to boot?
Hey, I've got an idea. Put up all the cameras you want downtown and have Carrie Gartner, executive director of “The District,” that special business district she speaks for and its members chip in with MU to foot the cost of those mobile security cameras.
(Then, they can pass the cost on to their downtown customers and the students' parents.)
IMO, public-funded surveillance cameras downtown is fundamentally flawed and my junkyard dog, Gunther, agrees with me.
(And that's good enough reason for me to vote No, as far as I'm concerned.)

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 10, 2009 | 9:40 p.m.

Eric, you do realize these cameras are not monitored but footage is only viewed after the fact if someone reports a problem? At $25K a pop for the systems that had been previously considered (and the freaking $1.25 million for the 50 cameras you prefer), I would rather see that money be spent on officers walking around and interacting with people. I'm of the opinion that police presence will do a lot more to move criminals out of downtown than some cameras hanging from a trailer.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox December 10, 2009 | 9:51 p.m.

Ray Shapiro said "Should be up to private bouncers to deter fights, shootings and crime, anyway."


(Report Comment)
Eric Cox December 10, 2009 | 10:01 p.m.

John Schultz

I need a link to those numbers in order to make an informed response to that, I do agree that's too much. Seems like it could be done for far less. I'm for safer streets not the city getting reamed.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro December 10, 2009 | 10:02 p.m.

("I'm of the opinion that police presence will do a lot more to move criminals out of downtown than some cameras hanging from a trailer.")
I agree.
I also believe that if things are so bad in "The District" that these businesses should partner with MU and hire private armed security patrols.
(It's a crying shame that these businesses attract such a medley of unsavory undesirables.)
What good is paying a bouncer if they don't bounce?
(Heel, Gunther, heel.)

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox December 10, 2009 | 10:09 p.m.
This comment has been removed.
Ray Shapiro December 10, 2009 | 10:24 p.m.
This comment has been removed.
Ray Shapiro December 11, 2009 | 5:23 a.m.

("Ask me about the woman screaming into her telephone in a checkout line. I now know everything about her husband’s sordid affair with a waitress. In fact, I could write about the affair in this column. It is now public.")
Yea. Why don't you just do that? Matter of fact, put it on the front page. Seems to be working for Tiger Woods. See what that gets you, Mr. Award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. (Did I read the word "ethics" somewhere in there?)
Yea. That's the ticket. Air some lady's overheard dirty laundry. It is so newsworthy.
We can even make this comment section into a gossipy little chat room while we're at it. (Nothing like being catty.)
No holds barred. No respect for any semblance of privacy.
Everyone's fair game. Everything public.
Damn the consequences. Damn any retaliation. Full speed ahead.
(Did I also read somewhere that you were also a minister?
Sheesh, how do you manage to balance and reconcile it all?)

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 11, 2009 | 8:43 a.m.

Eric, I'm having troubles finding the exact pricing on the cameras. Here's a Tribune story saying $50K will get the city three or four according to assistant city manager Tony St. Romaine:

Keep in mind the plan that was originally proposed earlier in the year and shot down by the council was a lease arrangement where the camera company would provide footage as needed, instead of the city owning the cameras outright (pretty much the same as the red light cameras).

This link has a little more about the capabilities and a picture of the cameras atop a pole, but not the entire rig including the trailer:

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez December 11, 2009 | 9:27 a.m.

I and my friends will not be visiting downtown until it is made much safer for everybody. That might mean these cameras or more foot patrol officers. My friends and I used to love going downtown for an evening walk but no longer.

(Report Comment)

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