For some residents, the idea of police cameras in downtown Lawrence means more safety and security. Others are uncomfortable with the idea of being under constant surveillance while they walk down street.
The Lawrence Police Department will have a second public meeting Tuesday to discuss plans to install two or three video cameras along intersections on Massachusetts Street. Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib will present details of the plan and a draft of the department’s policy at 7 p.m. at the Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St.
Khatib has said the cameras could help prevent and solve crimes, and would also be helpful in managing large crowds downtown. The police already set up temporary cameras for major events such as KU men’s basketball Final Four appearances and turn to downtown businesses with privately owned security cameras for evidence in criminal investigations.
Critics of the plan, including the regional chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, say that such examples are relatively rare and that Lawrence could be paying dearly for any security benefits if they give up the right to go out in public without being monitored by police.
Tuesday’s meeting follows a public forum in September, called by the ACLU, to ask whether the cameras were really necessary and what hidden costs the surveillance system might bring. After some debate, the plan was put on hold until Khatib returned with more information, which is the subject of Tuesday’s meeting.
The City Commission has said it would accept the grant money and permit the cameras only after hearing those details. The current draft of the department’s policy would require video taken by the cameras to remain confidential and encrypted and to be recycled each week. The cameras and installation would be paid for with a $46,800 grant sought by the police department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
Gary Brunk, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, said he opposed the plan because putting the public under surveillance would likely affect crime only minimally while imposing a chilling effect on public participation in political activities and protests. He questioned whether the level of crime in downtown Lawrence justified measures that “conjure up a vision of Big Brother.”
“I don’t think Police Chief Khatib intends to use it that way. I don’t think we have a police state in Lawrence,” Brunk said. “But I don’t think it’s very prudent for us to go down that road without weighing these issues.”
Bill Staples, a Kansas University sociology professor, has weighed those issues in his studies of public surveillance. In a letter to the editor, he wrote that he opposed the police department’s plan for many of the same reasons as the ACLU. While citizens give up their privacy by going out in public, he said, they may want to keep their anonymity and their ability to remain essentially unobserved.
Downtown businesses generally don’t seem to be opposed to the cameras, according to Cathy Hamilton, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc. She said many property owners might welcome some help with a recurring graffiti problem.
“We had a healthy debate at the first meeting,” she said. “But the merchants aren’t concerned about it. I’m not hearing a lot of pushback.”