Some public participation before and during Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission meeting helped city leaders make a better decision about the addition of police surveillance cameras in downtown Lawrence.
The proposal to use federal grant money to purchase two or three cameras to allow Lawrence police to monitor activities on Massachusetts Street originally was on the City Commission’s consent agenda, where it likely would have been approved in a single vote, along with about 15 other routine items. After hearing from the public on the matter, however, city officials decided to place the cameras on the regular agenda, which meant it would be discussed separately at Tuesday’s meeting and public comment would be allowed.
After hearing both support for and concerns about the new cameras, city commissioners chose to allow the system to be installed but only after they approve a detailed policy on how the cameras will be used. Although surveillance cameras are a legitimate law enforcement tool, residents have legitimate concerns about how they will be used. Lawrence police had an opportunity to try out the cameras during the Final Four celebrations in downtown Lawrence last spring. The department installed one camera that remains in place at the intersection of Ninth and Massachusetts and used three other temporary cameras to monitor the celebration. Police Chief Tarik Khatib said the new cameras primarily would be used to monitor large celebrations but he hoped to have a system in place soon that would allow officers to record footage and keep it for about 48 hours so it could be used, if needed, as part of an investigation.
It’s hard to argue with using the cameras to help keep celebrations safe and as an aid to solve a crime or find a missing child. However, it’s important, especially as the city tries to attract more residents to downtown, to make sure the cameras aren’t used in a way that unduly invades individuals’ privacy.
In a day and age when just about everyone you know is carrying a video camera in his or her purse or pocket — it’s called a cellphone — people pretty much have to live with the possibility that anything they do in public may be recorded and shared. However, as some local groups and individuals aptly pointed out, government recordings of public activities raise concerns about individual privacy. It’s one thing to monitor someone walking down the sidewalk or someone engaged in an illegal act and something else to use a camera to see what someone on a park bench is reading or even to look in the windows of downtown residences to see what is going on.
There’s nothing to indicate Lawrence police plan to do either of those things, but it’s important for the city to have a policy in place that outlines how surveillance cameras can be used. Thanks to the members of the public who voiced their concerns and the city commissioners who listened, the city will have such a policy in place.