'Tis the season, again, of bad ideas. I’ll comment on just two. One of them has at least the virtue of being well-intentioned. The other is pure politics.
Karen Taylor has, I’m sure, the best of intentions. After all, her son was assaulted late one night in a downtown parking garage, and a closed-circuit camera caught the crime on tape. Now she has collected nearly 3,000 signatures on a petition that would have cameras installed to monitor all of us whenever we venture downtown at any time for any reason.
The petition put our City Council in a corner. Members either had to approve the cameras or put the issue on next April’s ballot. Wisely, they chose by a 5-2 vote not to waste thousands of our dollars, but the ballot issue is inevitable.
Passage seems likely, judging from the public comments Monday night. And why not? Catching crooks is a good thing, we can all agree. Preventing crime is even better. And just look at London, that civilized city where there are cameras on every corner. Haven’t they made Londoners safer?
Well, no. The Daily Telegraph, London’s biggest-selling quality newspaper, reported a couple of months ago on an internal study by the Metropolitan Police over 10 years. One conclusion: “For every 1,000 cameras in London, less than one crime is solved per year.” This in a city that has spent about $300 million on its nearly 1 million cameras. The price per crime solved, then, works out to about $30,000.
No wonder Laura Nauser, Fifth Ward councilwoman and no bleeding heart liberal, said she has “a very difficult time” finding evidence of cameras’ effectiveness. The Columbia Daily Tribune also reported that Police Chief Ken Burton agreed that there isn’t such evidence. He’d rather use the money to hire an additional cop, he said.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe noted that downtown – where Chief Burton chooses to live – is actually safe. And Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala, an old Marine, pointed out that law-abiding citizens have a right to expect not to be photographed without their consent.
Only Mayor Darwin Hindman, who should know better, and Second Ward rookie Jason Thornhill, who may not, voted for the cameras.
In a nutshell, the argument against downtown surveillance cameras rests on three sturdy legs:
- They’re expensive.
- They don’t work.
- They violate our right to privacy.
The argument against today’s other bad idea rests even more solidly on one pillar, the United States Constitution.
Missouri Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O’Fallon, has prefiled a bill that would allow Missourians to ignore provisions of a federal health care bill. She told a Missourian reporter, “We don’t like it when people try to take away our freedom. We will maintain the right to purchase health care however we choose.”
If Rep. Davis were a student of history rather than a practitioner of right-wing politics, she’d know that there’s a legal term for her idea. That’s “nullification.” She’d also know that her philosophical ancestors in South Carolina tried it in the 1830s. President Andrew Jackson called it treason and threatened to send in the troops. South Carolina backed down.
Thirty years later, South Carolina didn’t back down and we fought a war over whether states could choose to ignore federal supremacy. Rep. Davis might remember that the war didn’t go well for the nullifiers.
Fortunately for us all, 21st century Missouri isn’t antebellum South Carolina. Rep. Davis isn’t John C. Calhoun.
MU professor of political science Greg Casey explained the constitutional principle simply: “If there’s a conflict between federal and state law, state law falls.”
Rep. Davis’s bad idea is likely to remain nothing more than political posturing. We haven’t heard the last of Karen Taylor’s.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.