Police-operated surveillance cameras will be coming to Massachusetts Street, but not before Lawrence city commissioners approve a detailed policy on how the cameras will be used.
City commissioners at their weekly meeting unanimously agreed to allow the Lawrence Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department to use $46,800 in federal grant money to purchase security cameras and related equipment. But after hearing concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union and several local residents, commissioners directed staff members that none of the new cameras be installed until clear policies for their use are established.
“The public obviously has a right to know and we have an obligation to show how this footage is going to be stored and how it is going to be used,” said City Commissioner Mike Amyx, who is a downtown business owner.
But commissioners also stressed they think the cameras can be significant crime-fighting tools. Commissioners said the potential seemed high that police officers could access video footage to help solve crimes committed in the downtown area.
Several members of the public, though, expressed concerns the cameras could be misused. Gary Brunk, executive director of the Kansas and Western Missouri ACLU, said many cameras are so sophisticated that lenses could allow police officers to zoom in to see what an individual is reading while sitting on a bench along Massachusetts Street.
“It is prudent to ask whether we want to live in a city where residents are constantly watched by authorities,” Brunk said. “I don’t think anyone is proposing to do that in Lawrence today, but history suggests that once video surveillance systems are installed, they are expanded.”
Police Chief Tarik Khatib said he expects the grant will allow two or three cameras to be bought, in addition to computer servers and fiber-optic cable to make the cameras usable. Khatib said he does not envision having an employee monitor the footage constantly.
Instead, he said, the cameras likely would be monitored during large events such as parades and community celebrations downtown. He also hopes eventually to have a system in place that would allow footage to be recorded and kept for about 48 hours in order for officers to review the tapes, if needed as part of an investigation.
The use of the cameras downtown did draw support from several downtown business owners. Downtown Lawrence Inc. sent a letter a supporting installation of the cameras, saying public safety in the downtown area is of “the upmost concern” to the association.
City officials have estimated it may be in late 2012 before the cameras are installed.
Mayor Bob Schumm, who is also a downtown business owner, said in addition to passing a policy on their use, he was in favor of notifying the public of the specific locations where the cameras would be installed. Those locations haven’t yet been determined.