Editorial: Add cameras downtown

Security cameras should be added along Massachusetts Street as both an evidentiary tool and a deterrent against crime.

City commissioners will again discuss cameras during a work session Tuesday. The discussion comes amid a concerning spike in violent crime in the downtown area, the Lawrence Police Department says.

Violent crimes — homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — have more than doubled since 2015, police said. There were 17 violent crimes in 2015, 23 in 2016 and 37 in 2017. In addition to the three homicides, the crimes last year include three rapes, one robbery and 30 aggravated assaults.

Most violent was a shootout in the early-morning hours of Oct. 1 that left three people dead and two others wounded. Police said video from a security camera on the nearby community building was critical to arrests and charges in that shooting.

Police Chief Gregory Burns supports adding cameras, saying that the triple homicide was a tipping point for the community.

Some perceive the cameras as an unnecessary and ineffective invasion of privacy. The ACLU of Kansas said that it opposes the installation of surveillance cameras in Lawrence or any other municipality.

“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 ACLU said in a statement issued to the Journal-World.

The ACLU also argued that video surveillance systems soak up resources that could be better used for community policing.

But the city is working to adopt a policy that addresses privacy concerns, Burns said. The recommended policy restricts which personnel are allowed to access the camera system and limits video storage to 14 days. The policy says 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.

The policy says cameras will 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.”

Costs for a surveillance system are about $108,000, the city said. That’s a relatively small investment for enhancing security in downtown Lawrence.

The increase in violence in downtown Lawrence is alarming. An enhanced camera surveillance system, supported by a reasonable policy that addresses privacy concerns, is a measured and practical response. While it won’t solve the crime problem completely, it will increase chances that crimes will be solved and it could be a deterrent in some cases. Commissioners should add the cameras.