Columbia city council moving to put hundreds of security cameras throughout city

jmonk@thestate.comNovember 12, 2013 

Some 400 more security cameras would be installed throughout Columbia next year if a proposal discussed Tuesday by City Council is implemented.

The cameras would be at roughly 100 locations – four cameras per location, assistant city manager Missy Gentry told council Tuesday afternoon in a workshop session.

“This will be a significant change from what we’ve done in the past,” Gentry told council members.

The city already has security cameras in city facilities and in a limited number of public places. And the Five Points restaurant and bar area is saturated with some 200 security cameras financed in large part by the Five Points Association, a group of local business owners. Video from those cameras is made available to law enforcement, which has used them to solve major violent crimes.

“The whole focus (of the new cameras) will be on capturing everything, vehicle-wise and pedestrian-wise, that’s coming into the city, mostly on the main arteries,” interim police chief Ruben Santiago told council.

“But we want to be very mindful that they aren’t in a neighborhood pointing at someone’s house,” he said.

Gentry said the city will own the data from the cameras, but will not own the cameras themselves. The camera operator will keep the video from the cameras, which will be active continuously, for 45 days. During that time, police can retrieve video from a specific time and place if need be.

Current plans call for signs to be placed near the cameras warning people the area is under video surveillance but the cameras’ specific locations would not be pointed out.

In a later interview, Santiago said the cameras would be of sufficiently high resolution to capture a vehicle’s license tag. However, he said, police don’t check out a license tag unless there is a valid reason.

“The camera system, when in place, should be a significant crime prevention tool that would drive crime even further down,” the chief said.

“We want people to know there are cameras there.”

Santiago also said he didn’t foresee any serious legal problems regarding privacy from the cameras. Security cameras are common in public places and issues surrounding them have been litigated in courts, he said.

Gentry said she hopes to put out formal notices soon asking for bidders to submit their qualifications and bid proposals. Council had previously approved the general idea of more security cameras, but Gentry’s presentation gave details. The city has earmarked some $700,000 for the system for the rest of the fiscal year, she said.

In another topic aired at Tuesday afternoon’s session, council members discussed where to drop recently-released inmates from the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.

Most people present — citizens and council members — appeared to agree that large numbers of freed inmates should not be dropped at any one place in the center city, and especially not at night, when they would encounter prostitutes and drug dealers. Another point of agreement: Freed inmates should be let out in a place where they have services available to help them re-enter society.

Council members pointed out that most freed county inmates are picked up at the jail — which is in a rural area off a two-lane road with no sidewalks several miles southeast of the city — and are not taken by bus to the center city.

Three proposals council members seemed interested in were giving freed inmates vouchers to pay for a taxi ride into town, persuading the county from holding night court at the jail so freed inmates wouldn’t be released at night, and somehow constructing a sidewalk along the miles of rural two-lane that goes to the jail.

In a Tuesday night meeting, council:

• Made Tuesday “Bill Linder Appreciation Day.” Linder, 79, who was in council chambers with his wife of 46 years, Lynne, is something of a superstar among local amateur athletes. For years, the Dreher High School, West Point and MIT graduate has run triathlons around the country, including this year’s Hawaiian Iron Man. A triathlon includes a bike ride of 110 miles, a 26.2-mile run and a 2.4-mile swim.

“Whenever I finish a race around the country, and they announce, ‘Bill Linder from Columbia, S.C.,’ I feel proud,” Linder told council.

• Gave the go-ahead for city staff to develop an idea floated by Mayor Steve Benjamin that he said could be an antidote to gang violence.

Specifically, Benjamin said, he would like to spend $122,790 in city money to start youth leagues in baseball, basketball, football and soccer next year. Under his initial numbers, that amount of money would serve 712 children — 192 in baseball, 70 in basketball, 300 in football and 150 in soccer. The money would go for equipment, uniforms and other expenses.

Benjamin said he would like to expand the youth leagues to involve 1,000 children and said he was open to having girls participate in the youth leagues, too. To that end, councilwoman Leona Plaugh proposed adding a softball league also.

Numerous details including finding volunteers and private backers finding open suitable game and practice places remain to be worked out before the idea becomes reality.

A child without opportunity who turns to crime “can easily run up a tab of $1 million” in costs to society, Benjamin said. “If we can save 10 kids, that would be $10 million.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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