Columbia police soon will be watching you through cameras trained on thoroughfares and about half of the city’s parks.
City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to spend $600,000 to buy almost 800 cameras and install them at 25 major intersections and in 24 parks. But council members, the majority facing re-election this fall, did not settle on how to pay for the cameras or the projected $7,900 in monthly operating expenses.
Altogether, the plan is expected to cost $692,800 the first year.
The city’s recent go-to funding source – meal taxes – will be used for much of the project. Other sources of money are being studied by the city staff.
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Assistant police chief Les Wiser called the expanded camera program “a game changer” in fighting crime and getting guilty pleas. Cameras are effective in Five Points and other entertainment districts and have proven themselves in other cities, most recently in the bombings at the Boston Marathon, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said.
Wiser said when cameras are stationed at intersections, the plan is not to use them to make traffic cases. The intent is to track criminals driving into and out of town or, as with the other cameras, to catch criminals in the act.
Interim chief Ruben Santiago told council that officers will set up the cameras to minimize intrusions on personal privacy. “We would only have them where we have the right to have them,” he said. Cameras won’t be pointed at windows in private homes, he said.
Santiago said as a further deterrent to criminals, the department plans to erect signs announcing the cameras’ presence.
“This is a big jump from what we have already,” he told council.
A date for the start of installation depends on how long it takes to advertise the purchase contract and allow bids to be evaluated. The so-called “request for proposal” seeking bids might be ready Friday, Wiser and assistant city manager Missy Gentry said.
Council opted for the more expansive and expensive of two plans the police department pitched. The other would have cost half as much because it would have used half the number of cameras in half as many intersections and parks.
In addition to installation costs, the city might have to hire employees for administrative expenses such as requests for footage from civil and criminal attorneys, as well as open-records requests, Wiser said. There is no plan to have a city staffer monitor the cameras, but officers will have remote, real-time access to the images they capture or get them after a crime has occurred.
Initially, the cameras would be placed at gateway intersections along the city’s east, west, north and south thoroughfares as well as in the city center.
That would include Harbison Boulevard and Columbiana Drive; Garners Ferry and Leesburg roads; Two Notch Road and Beltline Boulevard; Forest Drive and Percival Road; and Assembly and Gervais streets.
A full list of the parks has not been released by the police department because it is still analyzing where the cameras would be most effective, Wiser said.
A preliminary list provided by Wiser includes Elmwood, Earlewood, Southeast, Maxcy Gregg, Greenview, Martin Luther King, Owens Field, Hyatt, Pinehurst, Pacific, Mays, Lorick and St. Anna’s in the Waverly neighborhood.
Wiser and Santiago told council that Statewide Security Inc., which provides most of the cameras now in public use in Columbia, prepared the plans council considered Tuesday. Though the city must open the bidding to others, they said it’s unlikely anyone else can offer a better plan.
In addition, the new cameras must be able to coordinate with the existing system, the senior police officials said.
Mayor Steve Benjamin seemed to agree. He commended Statewide Security owner Carey Shealy of Columbia and said, “We’d be foolish to award a contract to the lowest bidder.”
The demand for cameras from residents and businesses has outstripped the city’s ability to pay for them.
Most of the current ones are in entertainment districts and have been funded by dipping into the revenue paid by patrons at restaurants and other places that sell prepared meals and beverages. That “hospitality tax” is projected to generate $9 million during the fiscal year that begins July 1, the city’s chief financial officer has said.
Council’s eagerness to focus on public safety prompted Councilman Cameron Runyan to ask if the police department has considered using a more high-tech option.
“Have y’all looked at drones,” Runyan said to immediate chuckles from his fellow council members. “Not weaponized ones,” he added quickly.
“Yes,” Santiago responded without elaborating.
Security cameras by the numbers
Number of cameras approved to be installed around Columbia along streets and in parks
Cost to buy cameras and set them up
Intersections where cameras will be installed
Parks where cameras will be installed
Monthly operating bill for the cameras