The City Council heard both sides of the debate Tuesday during a spirited public hearing on a proposal to install 10 video surveillance cameras in downtown Colorado Springs.
Opponents railed against an infringement of civil liberties and the $188,000 cost to taxpayers while supporters, including several business owners, said the city needed to take action to make downtown safer.
More than 20 people spoke on the controversial proposal, which was initiated by Mayor Steve Bach’s Downtown Solutions Team. The mayor formed the group to come up with ideas to make downtown a more welcoming place for residents and visitors alike.
“If there’s an eye in the sky, people will behave differently,” said developer Chuck Murphy, who heads the Downtown Solutions Team.
Murphy said Colorado Springs is losing a lot of downtown businesses and that concerns about safety and security are driving people away.
“You can walk though Acacia Park and get stoned,” he said.
But opponent Raven Martinez said events and activities downtown and in Acacia Park, not surveillance cameras, would deter crime.
The surveillance cameras will only catch criminals “after the fact,” Martinez said.
Police Chief Pete Carey said the proposed cameras could scan, tilt and zoom in to get a better view of a possible crime in progress. The cameras wouldn’t have audio or “additional functionality,” such as facial recognition or license plate readers, he said.
“Our goal in the downtown area is to reduce the crime and quality of life issues that may cause people to either avoid the downtown area or feel unsafe or uncomfortable while they are there,” he said.
Carey said he would recruit volunteers who would need to pass a background check and use officers on light duty to monitor the cameras.
While a training policy is in the works, “the policies in training will be designed to ensure individual rights are protected,” Carey said.
Loring Wirble, co-chairman of the ACLU of the Pikes Peak region, said he worries the city is rushing into a program without fully considering all the “possible minefields.”
“We’ve seen in city after city that if you don’t really have a good handle on what your volunteer is doing, you get a lot of manual active monitoring that will just follow something funny or interesting or all kinds of sexist type of uses,” he said. “That could be a big, big concern if there isn’t a real tight control over that.”
Council President Scott Hente said the council will work with city staff to determine if a proposal will be ready for a formal presentation and vote in two weeks.
Hente said he’s “very solidly on the fence” about the surveillance cameras. He said he has “no issues” with the Big Brother aspect but questioned how the Police Department didn’t have the manpower for red-light cameras but it does for surveillance cameras.
“I want to be consistent,” Hente said. “If we’d have kept the red light cameras, I wouldn’t be questioning this right now.”
During a press conference Tuesday morning at the City Administration Building, Bach said the two types of cameras are “not connected.”
The red-light cameras were installed under the premise that they would reduce crashes, property damage and personal injury, he said. When the police chief said they weren’t successful, he agreed with the decision to pull them.
The surveillance cameras serve a different purpose, the mayor said.
“I’m not totally comfortable with surveillance cameras in terms of being intrusive,” Bach said. “On the other hand, there are best practices in other cities where they have successfully reduced crime, so we thought we should bring it forward to City Council.”
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