With new data showing that violent crime has sharply spiked in downtown Lawrence since 2015, city leaders are due to take a serious look at whether cameras should be added along Massachusetts Street.
The discussion, which will take place at the City Commission’s work session Tuesday, also comes as law enforcement officials have touted the role cameras played in apprehending suspects in last fall's triple homicide on Massachusetts Street. Commissioner Leslie Soden requested earlier this year that the commission review the possibility of adding security cameras downtown. Soden said that she was mindful of privacy concerns with public cameras, but that safety downtown should be a big concern if the city wants people to keep visiting and shopping there.
“Downtown public safety is an important factor of people continuing to come downtown,” Soden said. “And public safety is part of the primary mission of a city, so I think that fits in well with what we do already and what we should continue to do.”
The Oct. 1 shooting, which killed three and injured two others, took place near the intersection of 11th and Massachusetts streets and was captured by the city’s security camera on the nearby Community Building. Both Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson and Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. are supportive of adding cameras downtown to help solve crimes. However, in previous discussions about adding cameras downtown, some have raised concerns about privacy.
Rising downtown crime
From 2015 to 2017, downtown violent crime — homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — more than doubled, according to a memo from the police department to the commission. There were 17 violent crimes in 2015, 23 in 2016 and 37 in 2017. In addition to the three homicides, the crimes last year comprise three rapes, one robbery and 30 aggravated assaults.
While Burns said he recognizes the privacy concerns, he is recommending that the police department add public cameras downtown to increase safety. In his recommendation, Burns said that each community has to decide what the tipping point is to turn to public cameras, and he thinks that time has arrived for Lawrence.
“I would say that violence is that point for any community, and we have already reached that point in our downtown area with the horrific triple homicide on Oct. 1, 2017,” Burns said.
Branson previously told the Journal-World that camera footage was a key part of the evidence leading to the arrest of three men in connection with the shootings. Branson said he also supports adding more downtown security cameras because they help solve and prosecute crimes.
The police department proposed adding public cameras downtown in 2012, and some members of the public, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, subsequently raised privacy concerns and questioned how camera footage would be used and stored. That plan never moved forward.
The ACLU does not object to cameras at “specific, high-profile public places,” but is against the idea of blanketing public spaces with cameras, according to its website. In a statement to the Journal-World, the ACLU of Kansas said that it opposes the installation of surveillance cameras in Lawrence, or in any other municipality in Kansas, stating that cameras are highly susceptible to abuse and pose a threat to civil liberties.
“Incidents from across the country have demonstrated that surveillance systems, once installed, rarely remain confined to their original purpose, have little impact on public safety, and have a chilling effect on public life,” the statement reads. The ACLU also stated that video surveillance systems are bad for communities because they soak up resources that could be better used for community policing and because criminals will often shift their activities to areas without cameras.
Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, an attorney and social worker, said she thinks it’s the commission’s responsibility to consider the safety of the community and that she is interested in potentially adding public cameras downtown. But if cameras were added, Ananda said, the commission would need to balance the need for safety with the public’s concerns.
“That’s kind of a broader question I think that we experience, is the balance between safety and freedom, safety and privacy, and where do we draw that line,” Ananda said.
In his recommendation to add cameras, Burns states that public cameras increase public safety, deter crime, help identify criminals and assist in providing evidence. Burns stated that he fully understands that some people have privacy concerns, but he believes that the positives vastly outweigh the negatives and that concerns can be addressed by a sound policy.
“While there is less expectation of privacy in public settings, such as on a downtown sidewalk or street corner, great care will be given in the use of this system if it is approved,” Burns said.
Soden said she is supportive of adding cameras downtown, as long as there is a detailed policy. She also specified that she doesn’t think cameras should be monitored live and she is not looking to put them at additional locations. Even if the city doesn’t decide to add more cameras, Soden said there should be a policy for the handful of security and traffic cameras the city already has up.
Along with his recommendation, Burns included a draft policy for the camera system. The draft policy puts restrictions on which personnel are allowed to access the camera system, limits video storage to 14 days and prohibits certain uses by law enforcement.
The policy states, in part, that the cameras will not be monitored live by any police personnel with the exception of specific large-scale events, such as the NCAA Tournament and the Lawrence St. Patrick’s Day Parade, or unless other high-pressure circumstances exist. If a crime is reported, camera footage will be reviewed to determine whether any potential evidence was captured, according to the policy.
Regarding privacy, the policy states that cameras shall be focused on public areas and the images shall not be used or disseminated improperly. The policy prohibits using the camera system to observe private areas or any areas where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Ananda said, while she thinks a policy can address some of the issues raised about public cameras and the potential misuse of that information, a policy doesn’t prevent those issues from coming up in practice. She said that if cameras were to be installed, the policy needs to be enforced.
“In addition to the policy that outlines how it should be used, having some teeth to that and some responsibility directly to the officer is also an important piece of that policy,” Ananda said.
If Lawrence were to install cameras, it would join cities such as Wichita, Lenexa, Olathe and Kansas City, Kan., according to a memo from Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia to the commission. It also would not be a completely new concept for the city, which has temporarily installed public cameras before for big events.
The police department installs temporary cameras downtown during NCAA Tournament celebrations to assist with crowd control and to promptly respond to fights or safety concerns, according to the memo. Burns said that, because the city has temporarily installed public cameras before, some of the infrastructure is already in place.
Burns is recommending that 19 overt cameras — meaning they are noticeable by passersby — be installed on Massachusetts Street between Sixth and 11th streets. The cost to purchase the cameras and computer server costs to manage storage are estimated at $108,000, according to the memo.
The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.