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LETTER: Cameras take human element out of law enforcement

Monday, March 22, 2010 | 3:26 p.m. CDT; updated 9:27 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 22, 2010

History is full of examples of people giving up civil liberties in the name of safety and security. It generally turns out badly for them.

Columbia residents are being asked to do the same thing in April when we vote on Proposition 1, a ballot initiative to fund a surveillance camera network downtown. Red-light cameras already subject us to this technology at some intersections in Columbia. This initiative would go a step further to monitor activities in public areas of downtown.

Both types of cameras have downsides. Having such cameras makes the assumption that people are doing something wrong and puts the burden of proof on them to show otherwise. This goes against a fundamental tenet of our justice system — that you are innocent until proven guilty. And though there is not an expectation of privacy from your fellow citizens in public areas, you should have a reasonable expectation of privacy from your government, especially when it is trying to collect information about you without your consent.

Proponents of the initiative point to cameras in front of the new City Hall building and in city-owned parking garages as evidence that the city should have the prerogative to put cameras elsewhere. These city-owned structures carry with them a responsibility and liability on the part of the city that privately-owned and public areas downtown do not. If the businesses downtown want cameras there, they should pay for them and operate them of their own volition.

Maybe the idea is that having the cameras will deter crime on the whole, but we already have evidence of this not being the case. News stories on TV or in print often include surveillance footage or a screenshot from such a video from an in-progress robbery. It is pretty common knowledge that many businesses have these cameras, and it doesn't stop crimes from still occurring in those businesses. It is ludicrous to think that putting cameras in an area like downtown Columbia would be any different.

So in lieu of deterrence, we keep hearing the argument that putting surveillance cameras downtown will help the city catch criminals that perpetrate crimes there. The same people also argue that this will make people feel safer downtown. But if the cameras are to help catch criminals after crimes are already committed, the crime is still happening. The BBC recently reported that the extensive camera network in London contributes to solving only a slight percentage of crimes in that city. So what's the point?

Taking the human element out of the law enforcement process is rarely, if ever, a good idea. There are alternatives to putting a big brother-like camera network into our downtown. Use the money to put more officers in the area, or put the many undercover officers that are generally downtown during the weekends in uniform so that people are aware of their presence.

Columbia residents should say no to the nanny state and yes to civil liberties when they go to the polls in April. Vote "no" on Proposition 1.


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