Warren Bolton

August 7, 2014

Bolton: Columbia, SC’s surveillance cameras will help solve crimes, deter would-be criminals

Some people will declare that the use of surveillance cameras by the city of Columbia is an invasion of people’s privacy. But this isn’t about keeping track of citizens’ every intimate move; it’s about improving safety and security for people as they work, live in and visit our capital city.

WHAT IF ONE of the surveillance cameras Columbia is installing across the city captures a man cheating on his wife — or vice versa? Or videos a husband and wife having a spat exiting a restaurant? Or captures a family on an ice cream run or a jogger getting her couple miles in?

Shouldn’t people be able to move about without being spied on? Wouldn’t this be an invasion of privacy, an intrusion upon civil liberties?

Not in my book. I think the city’s expansion of its network of cameras is a smart idea. And while there are many who agree with me, some people will declare the use of surveillance cameras an invasion of people’s privacy.

But this isn’t about keeping track of citizens’ every intimate move; it’s about improving safety and security for people as they work, live in and visit our capital city. Installing cameras in entertainment districts, along busy thoroughfares and in well-chosen neighborhood locations is likely to make someone with criminal intent think twice.

The intent isn’t to aim cameras directly into someone’s window or an open backdoor or to train them on sensitive areas of a particular business. The cameras will be placed in public places, where what transpires is fair game to be captured on video — whether by a television or newspaper camera crew or a citizen’s smartphone or a city surveillance camera.

Anyone worried about privacy or being caught in a compromising situation because of city-sponsored cameras isn’t considering the day and age we live in. How can you reasonably expect your actions not to be subject to being recorded in a public place in an era when you scarcely can do something privately without it being spread across the web, sometimes within minutes, whether you’re aware of it or not?

Columbia officials recently announced a plan to install cameras at 88 new sites, which would bring the total number of locations under surveillance to more than 150, monitored by hundreds of cameras.

Police chief Skip Holbrook said camera locations are determined based on crime reports and calls for police service. Police also identify the busiest thoroughfares and major intersections.

Cameras will be installed in the Harbison Boulevard and Broad River Road areas as well as in the northeast portion of Columbia. Columbia already has cameras at 70 sites, mostly in entertainment districts and along major thoroughfares. Most aren’t monitored 24 hours a day; police review footage to identify problems and potential suspects.

It’s good to see the city ponying up the funds to spread the cameras around. There was a time when it seemed only the entertainment districts and some main thoroughfares would get them, creating understandable disappointment among some in neighborhoods where crime has been and remains a problem.

While I understand the need to protect those places that attract large crowds, including visitors from out of town, it’s imperative to give residential areas and others the same treatment. Give City Council credit: It promised to extend video surveillance to other parts of the city, and it’s happening.

There was a day when safety and security depended largely on police walking beats and keeping their eyes and ears open for any sign of trouble. While there is still some of that going on in some areas, officers can’t be everywhere at once. Since we’ve got technology that can aid police and be an extension of their eyes and ears, so to speak, why not use it to protect innocent people from those with criminal intent? Just think of the lives that can be saved, property spared and crimes that can be solved.

While I favor the city’s use of security cameras, there are some things that Columbia officials should consider as they move forward.

•  They should make sure the cameras are used responsibly and that the public knows the policies governing their use. There also must be stringent guidelines — and training — for how officers and others can access and use footage. Anyone who accesses the cameras or uses them for other than official business should face disciplinary action.
•  Any cameras owned by the city must always be subject to the Freedom of Information Act; the public should have access to resulting video just as it does public documents. Please let’s not engage in stonewalling, the destruction of video and other antics.
•  While live monitoring of every camera isn’t really practical, it’s important that, as the number of cameras increases, city officials develop a good strategy for ensuring that reviews take place regularly.
•  While surveillance cameras provide a cost-effective means to help prevent and reduce crime, it’s important not to use them as a crutch or reason not to fully staff the police force. Cameras don’t subdue criminals or make arrests. They are aids, not replacements for officers and good traditional police work; they should be used in conjunction with other prevention methods.
•  Is it me or is there a need to work to get a better quality of video from some of these surveillance cameras? So often, authorities release videotape of suspects robbing establishments, and it’s almost impossible to determine whether it’s someone you know or not. I’m not just referring to those the city will install, but even those in convenience stores and banks. Fortunately, the culprit does often get caught. But maybe identification and arrests could be made even sooner if the quality was better.

There’s probably nothing that would convince some critics of cameras in public places that this is for the greater good and that it’s not an intrusion on people’s privacy. But the potential benefits and added security this brings are undeniable.

Cue the cameras.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (8030 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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