Some citizens concerned that Big Brother may be coming to downtown Lawrence got their chance to speak their minds and ask questions Tuesday.
At a meeting Tuesday night, Lawrence Police Chief Tarik Khatib took notes on possible revisions to a policy on downtown surveillance cameras before he submits the plan to the City Commission.
Twelve citizens attended the meeting Tuesday night at the Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St., to ask questions about the scope and cost of the department's plan to install video cameras along intersections on Massachusetts Street. The meeting followed a public forum in September, called by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, to ask whether the cameras were really necessary and whether they might infringe on civil liberties in the future.
The plan calls for up to six cameras, paid for with $47,000 in grant money sought by the police department and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. Khatib said the cameras would not usually be watched by police on a daily basis and might only be activated during nighttime hours when more incidents occur. Policy requires that the video remain confidential and encrypted, and erased after seven days unless it is evidence in an active investigation.
Khatib has said the downtown area accounts for about 10 percent of the 115,000 calls for service the police receive each year, including crimes, complaints, and minor tasks such as ticket writing. He said the cameras could help prevent and solve robberies, rapes and assaults, and would also be helpful in managing large crowds downtown, such as when Kansas University basketball Final Four appearances spur major celebrations.
Critics of the plan, including Gary Brunk, executive director of the ACLU for Kansas and Western Missouri, said other cities that have installed such video programs found the maintenance costs ballooned over time and have seen the cameras used to monitor law-abiding political activists. He said such programs tend to expand.
"Chicago started with 10 cameras, and now they have 10,000. It's not so much what you're going to do," Brunk said. "But what's going to happen in the future."
The policy, as Khatib noted at the meeting, directed the police department to list the locations of the cameras and their purpose on its website, and to post signage near them downtown. It would prohibit actively focusing the cameras on people without some reasonable suspicion, which could not include race, gender or other classifications protected by law.
"I understand people are nervous about the Big Brother aspect of it," Khatib said. "I'm not trying to track people."
The cameras would be able to zoom, pan and tilt, Khatib said, but the department will seek cameras without facial recognition software, automated tracking or penetrating private spaces with infrared or X-ray technology, which the policy also prohibits.
The meeting did raise some questions that Khatib said he would have to research before finishing the policy, such as how much of the information about, and collected by, the cameras would be public record. He also said he would provide more details about what type of request other law enforcement, including state and federal agencies, would have to submit to access video from the system.
If implemented, the department would submit an annual report on the system's performance to the city, which could appoint its own auditor.
Khatib said he would make another revision of the policy before presenting it again to the City Commission.