DAVID ROSMAN: Should Big Brother be watching Columbia more?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Last week’s Boston Marathon bombing has brought the debate about the use and proliferation of security cameras for crime prevention and investigation, and the related privacy issues, to a new apex. It's a debate that needs to be reopened in Columbia.

I was amazed at the swiftness of identifying the Tsarnaev brothers as the potential bombers, as I am sure you were. The short but lively debate on talk radio of whether the FBI and Homeland Security should have made the photos of the “persons of interest” public is now moot. The pictures went up, a large number of individuals identified the men and the manhunt became focused. We know the rest of the story — at least to date.

The security camera question has hit the ground running and not just in the U.S. — Germany has reopened the issue, as has France and London, the most video surveilled city on the planet. Commentary in Politico, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other publications are asking the same questions.

Should there be more surveillance cameras? Less? No change?

Does the threat to personal privacy by surveillance cameras (and for that matter drones, those remote-controlled surveillance aircraft) outweigh the security of our citizens and guests, our cities, states and nation?

Are the cameras situated in locations where they would do the most good?

Finally, at least for this essay, is personal privacy a myth?

Although Boston has a reported 650 security cameras used by the police and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MTA or “The T”), it was a camera on a Lord & Taylor, on Boylston Street, that provided the first clues to the identity of the bombers. It was the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of pictures and videos from individuals at the finish line that helped identify the initial connection between the man in the black hat and the man in the white hat.

Columbia’s own debate began with the June 6, 2009, beating of Adam Taylor in the Cherry Street parking garage, an incident caught on security cameras. The images of “Knockout King” were aired on television stations and the Internet over and over again. The gang of five, ranging in age from 13 to 19, were identified by the public and arrested two days later.

In Columbia and Boston the cameras did exactly what they were supposed to do: assist in the prompt identification of the criminals and terrorists. But it was not just the cameras. It took the public’s help, the real eyes and ears of national security and public safety, to give names to the images.

Columbia’s own security camera advocacy group, Keep Columbia Safe, worked hard to give the CPD the authority to place and use security cameras in downtown Columbia. Section 24-29a through 33 was added to our city ordinances by public vote.

Relying on security cameras is really a hit-or-miss proposition, solely dependent on three important factors — where, when and availability. As we have seen from the recent multitude of Columbia shooting and home invasion incidents, outside of downtown, the mall, commercial facilities and shopping centers, security cameras are few, rare or simply nonexistent. As rare or nonexistent are the individuals who are willing to talk to the police, mostly out of fear and retaliation.

As the Tsarnaev brothers discovered, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy when "out in public." The thought that cameras are "everywhere" is a myth. The city is mostly blind.

As we all have come to realize, it was the human factor that was the final key to solving both crimes. Too often I hear a spokesperson for the Columbia police say that they are receiving no help from the public, from those who witnessed the crime or who recognize the offenders.

“Maybe if a camera recorded the incident?” is not the right question. It is “How do we make witnesses feel safe to speak up?”

While public and private security cameras have minimal effect deterring crime, they do aid in the capture of criminals. Do we need city/county/state-owned security cameras in high-crime residential neighborhoods? Does this advantage outweigh our expectations to privacy? Is there an expectation of privacy?

Some of those cameras already exist. Just look up the next time you stop at a traffic signal. See the camera above or next to the traffic signal? Smile. Have George Orwell’s “1984” and “Big Brother” finally reached fruition?

This conversation must take place and the floor is now open.

David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. Questions? Contact opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Dave Overfelt April 24, 2013 | 7:30 a.m.

Instead of baseless speculation, how about we look at research that works to assess the value of cameras. Try this: Cameras can work to reduce crime, particularly in areas where crime is high. Note, NOT DOWNTOWN COLUMBIA! Columbia is a VERY safe city. The cost of effectively deploying cameras, which requires someone to watch them, is simply not worth it. Particularly when we have so many police already on the streets all the time.

Instead of throwing away money on cameras, we could work toward truly effective crime elimination strategies. Supporting kids in need with early education and mentoring, providing job training, seeking to create more good jobs in the city, and more generally trying to reduce the terrible rates of unemployment in the first ward. Cameras are a hostile approach that MIGHT help, supporting people to create a better city is a collaborative approach that WILL help.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz April 24, 2013 | 10:04 a.m.

Most of the cameras on traffic signals are to detect the presence of cars. I do not believe they are monitored or can be viewed in any way.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 24, 2013 | 10:48 a.m.

@ John Schultz:

You are correct. Some cameras are there to detect changes - in REAL TIME - in traffic density and pattern, and they have NO surveillance function as the concept of "surveillance" seems mentioned in the article.

"Cueing Theory" is a fascinating, non-political subject, and some traffic systems used are very sophisticated (not to mention expensive). The same theory is also widely used in business and industrial situations, but many people are aware of that.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking April 24, 2013 | 11:50 a.m.

Dave Overfelt wrote:

"Instead of throwing away money on cameras, we could work toward truly effective crime elimination strategies."

A problem of these programs is they often don't help people that most need them, due to many reasons like peer pressure, undervaluing education, and poor parental involvement and motivation. I know we have tried many programs for at-risk kids, but unfortunately there will always be some that don't make use of them.

Csmeras don't typically prevent crime. They assist law enforcement and the public in catching the criminal after the crime happens. You'd think more criminals would be aware of cameras when committing their crimes, but one of the more common characteristics of criminals is they're not too bright.


(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield April 24, 2013 | 2:24 p.m.

"we could work toward truly effective crime elimination strategies. Supporting kids in need with early education and mentoring, providing job training, seeking to create more good jobs in the city, and more generally trying to reduce the terrible rates of unemployment in the first ward."

We've been trying that since the 1960s. Time to admit that the War on Poverty is futile. If you disagree, feel free to walk through the First Ward and offer your home and wallet to those you believe need it. Seriously.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield April 24, 2013 | 4:00 p.m.

Cameras are pointless as long as the courts continue to practice catch and release. Pick a 19 or 20 year old whose arrest makes the papers, and put his name in Case dot net. Chances are high that he's got several felony priors at that young age. What's he doing back on the streets?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 25, 2013 | 5:30 a.m.

"The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness... They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their situations. They conferred, as against the government, THE RIGHT TO BE LET ALONE - the most comprehenive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." - Justice Louis D. Brandeis

[So, Big Brother, may we now offer an "anatomical" suggestion as to what you should do with those surveillance cameras? I wanted to post Brandeis' quote yesterday, but had a problem locating it.]

(Report Comment)

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