COLUMBIA — Downtown cameras deter crime and are a great investigative tool. Or, downtown cameras have no effect on crime whatsoever. It all depends on who's talking and what kind of crime they're talking about.
On April 6, voters will decide whether cameras should be placed in the Central Business District, which is bordered by Hitt Street, Elm Street, Providence Road and Rogers Street in front of Columbia College.
April 6, 2009: The City Council reviews results from a pilot project that placed a mini-mobile unit with four cameras mounted on a telephone pole at Ninth Street and Broadway. The council votes down a $50,000 ordinance that would place four cameras downtown.
June 6, 2009: Adam Taylor is knocked unconscious and beaten in the parking garage at Tenth and Cherry streets. Footage from a video camera led to the arrest of five of the seven suspects.
July 20, 2009: Karen Taylor, the mother of Adam Taylor, asks the council to seek public input on downtown cameras. Her request was denied.
Sept. 14, 2009: Karen Taylor holds a press conference to announce her organization, Keep Columbia Safe, is circulating a petition on downtown cameras. If she gets enough signatures, the council will have to pass an ordinance or put it on the ballot. In an online survey on the organization’s Web site, 92% of the 1,921 participants said they supported downtown cameras.
Nov. 2, 2009: Karen Taylor submits the petition with 2,949 valid signatures. She needed 2,579 signatures (20 percent of the 12,895 registered voters in Columbia).
Dec. 7: 2009: The ordinance was brought before council. The council voted the ordinance down 5-2; Mayor Darwin Hindman and Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill voted yes. The council voted unanimously to put the decision to the voters on April 6.
The issue has been defined by the back-and-forth between opposing sides and collectively, research offers only a vague explanation of the effect cameras might have.
Many unanswered questions remain for voters to consider before voting on Proposition 1, which would put cameras downtown.
The initial question is whether the cameras would actually work in Columbia.
Karen Taylor cited her son’s June 2009 case to demonstrate how they can. Adam Taylor was assaulted in a parking garage that had security cameras. Five of the seven teenagers responsible for the beating were arrested based on footage of the crime. Karen Taylor formed Keep Columbia Safe, a grassroots organization intended to improve public safety, after the incident.
“It is important to note that not only did (the camera) aid in the arrests in these five individuals, with one of the individuals, it took the jury less than 20 minutes to find him guilty because of the video,” Karen Taylor said. “This is just one case to prove how valuable cameras are.”
Dan Viets, president of Mid-Missouri ACLU, said Adam Taylor’s case is an exception. Mid-Missouri ACLU is opposed to downtown cameras.
“This whole thing is being driven by a fluke, a very rare instance in which some people were foolish enough to commit a crime right in front of a camera,” Viets said. “Virtually every study that has looked at whether surveillance cameras work in the streets and on the sidewalk — not talking about parking garages and other high risk areas — has concluded the cameras make no difference.”
Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton said it is difficult to say how effective the cameras would be.
“The reality is this: (it could be) that they put them down there and they never detect a crime. The other side is that the next day they record a significant crime,” Burton said. “It’s possible they would be down there for years without being of any use. I think their biggest value is as a deterrent.”
Burton said the camera might have other uses as well.
“Obviously, if they recorded a crime, they would be a great investigative tool,” Burton said. “Even without that, they would be a good deterrent for other issues downtown related to order. If people knew they were there, they might be more likely to behave themselves.”
Essentially, whether the cameras are effective depends on what is considered effective. Cameras might deter and help to investigate crimes, but how many deterred crimes make the camera effective?
The second question is whether the city needs them downtown.
“Downtown is not a high crime area,” Viets said. “Downtown is a relatively low crime area. Why are we looking at doing it only downtown or why are we looking at doing it downtown at all?”
Karen Taylor said the dense population is the biggest benefit to having the cameras downtown and violent crime is on the rise.
“You’ll hear some folks say crime is down,” Karen Taylor said. “Between 2008 and 2009, assault arrests were up 23 percent. So to me that shows while crime as a whole may be down, the violent crime — the crime we should be most concerned about — is up.” Karen Taylor said she got her statistics from the Columbia Police Department.
The Missourian obtained the same analysis through Jessie Haden, the police department's public information officer.
According to that analysis, which was compiled to show the effectiveness of a new seven-member Downtown Police Team, assault arrests are up 23 percent. However, reported assault incidents have remained the same.
“Violent crime is flat. There were 63 assaults reported in 2009, and that number is exactly the same as 2008,” Burton said. “Arrests for assaults were up ... because we had more police officers down there.”
Burton said because the cameras would be portable, their usage could be more diverse.
“While initially they were planned for downtown, I think they can be used anywhere in the city,” Burton said. As of now, the ordinance would only authorize the cameras to be used in the Central Business District.
Crime has gone down since Burton formed the Downtown Police Team, but crime still happens downtown. Is downtown Columbia unsafe?
Another question is whether a balance can be found between privacy and safety.
If the city were to fund downtown cameras, all film caught on tape would fall under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, meaning anyone could request to see footage.
Burton said police would only pull video footage if it showed a crime.
“There would be no reason to keep it non-public, unless it was related to a crime,” Burton said. “If it was evidence, it would not necessarily be public information.”
Karen Taylor said the cameras would only be placed in areas where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, and they will only be used to aid in arrests and prosecution.
“CPD does not have the manpower to have someone sit and watch video 24/7,” Karen Taylor said.
Viets said it is excessive government surveillance that makes many people uncomfortable. Mark Flakne, a member of Keep Columbia Free, has privacy concerns also. Keep Columbia Free is a coalition against Proposition 1; the coalition includes Mid-Missouri ACLU.
“The silly example I always give is: what if you tripped and hit your head, and it was caught on tape? And I request that and put it on YouTube?” Flakne said. “We can all laugh at your folly for the next few years.”
Karen Taylor said innocent people have nothing to worry about.
“If you’re not doing anything wrong, why do you care?” she said at a debate at Stephens College on Feb. 19.
A walk downtown could become public record. If cameras mean giving some privacy up, is safety a worthy trade-off?
What it comes down to...
Who and what is right depends greatly on perspective. Cameras may have some deterrent effect, but it is unclear whether that effect would be significant. They may or may not be helpful as an investigative tool.
“We don’t believe (cameras are) the answer to crime, but we believe it’s another aid to law enforcement,” Karen Taylor said.
Viets said Mid-Missouri ACLU does not object to cameras in parking garages or to private property owners and businesses putting in their own cameras, but they are definitely opposed to cameras on public streets and sidewalks.
“Reason 1: cameras don’t work. Reason 2: downtown is not where the most serious crime is happening,” Viets said.
Burton said he does not have a position on the cameras.
“If they’re put down there, we’ll use them as much as we can, but if they’re not put down there, I’m not gonna lose any sleep over it,” Burton said.
How do the facts compare to the arguments?
Last April, City Council heard a report about a pilot project that placed four cameras at Ninth and Broadway.
Burton said at the council's April 6, 2009 meeting there was not any solid data comparing the 30 days before the pilot project and the 30 days during because any differences might be due to other factors.
Several studies have been done to measure the effectiveness of cameras. The statistics suggest cameras might be more effective in smaller towns than larger cities. They also suggest cameras are more effective in deterring car theft than any other kind of crime and least effective at deterring violent crime. There is some disagreement on how effective they are as an investigative tool.
However, there is some contradiction among
research, and there is room to question the results found by
A look at multiple closed circuit television studies by Nacro, a British safety organization, shows that many studies are inadequate due to issues like lack of control groups, no account for seasonal variations, no discussion of displacing crimes to different areas and listing percentages without sample size.
It's difficult to say what percentage of crime occurs downtown. Police only recently began mapping crime geographically. In May 2009, a special unit began patrolling downtown. Reports increased dramatically, but as a result of increased patrol.
The data created to demonstrate the effectiveness of the downtown unit shows arrests are up in several areas, including minor in possession of alcohol, open container violations and public nuisances.
There were 63 reported assaults downtown — the same number reported in 2008. Arrests for assault downtown were up, 48 in 2009 compared to 2008's 39.
The ordinance says the video recordings will only be kept for 60 days until they are recorded over or destroyed.
City Attorney Fred Boeckmann said 60 days is the retention time specified by the Missouri Secretary of State’s office.
“In other words you don't have to keep those things forever,” Boeckmann said. “As a practical matter, it would be very difficult.”
The original proposal that was rejected by the city council in April 2009 cost $50,000 for two years to lease four cameras. The District agreed to pay half of it. Proposition 1 does not specify a cost for the initiative — it merely authorizes the police chief to use the cameras if he so chooses. Burton said he would use portable units, like the one tested.
Karen Taylor said expected cost can be based on the tested unit.
“If (The District) will still fund half of it, it will be… $12,500 a year for two years for the mobile units,” Karen Taylor said. “There would be an advantage to mobile units because they could be moved to hotspots.”
The District agreed to help pay for the cameras if Proposition 1 passes. Special Business District Chair Mary Wilkerson said its board set aside $50,000 last year for the project, but that is a one-time offer, which will not be issued every year.
If the proposition passes, it goes back to a council vote. At that time, council will decide what funds, if any, to allot to the project.
Downtown businesses are some of the biggest stakeholders in this issue.
Wilkerson said The District has been on board since the very beginning.
“It’s hard to say how effective they will be. I think that the real benefit to the cameras is identifying and solving crimes,” Wilkerson said. “We have a great police force downtown, but they can’t be everywhere. Identifying is just the next step.”
Owner of Bambino’s Italian Café and former Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash said he does not have a problem with the installation of cameras.
“I don’t know that they’re going to prevent crime, but I am very confident that it will solve them,” Ash said.
Private property owners and businesses can install their own cameras. Any footage from such cameras is not subject to Missouri Sunshine Law.
“Some other businesses are already doing it anyway,” Wilkerson said. “I think that if a public entity like the city is interested in preventing crime, then that’s great.”
Arnie Fagan, owner of Cool Stuff, said council has handled the issue “abysmally.”
“I do have an opinion, but I think that’s secondary,” Fagan said. “It was not even given a fair hearing at the city council level.”
Fagan said this is a decision that should be made by the people.
“It’s gonna go up in front of the people and I’ll vote,” Fagan said. “I look forward to the results and whatever everybody decides.”
Missourian reporter Ashley Reinsch contributed to this report.