DA: More public video cameras would help solve, prosecute crime in downtown Lawrence
When evidence in last fall’s triple homicide finally came out publicly in recent weeks, surveillance video’s role in the investigation was on display.
“If it wasn’t for security cameras owned by businesses and buildings in downtown Lawrence, this case may not have been solved,” Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said. City-owned cameras also were part of the evidence.
Especially on the heels of video’s usefulness in the high-profile Massachusetts Street murder case, Branson wants the city to add more public cameras downtown because, he says, they help solve and prosecute crimes.
The City Commission plans to discuss the topic at an upcoming study session. The commission is awaiting a report on public cameras, which commissioners ordered last month from the city’s legal and police departments.
“I would certainly support some type of passive camera system located downtown where we would be able to go back and locate footage,” Branson said. “I want to encourage them to continue looking at it, and register my support.”
Some city representatives, commission candidates and community members have been talking about whether more downtown cameras are needed since the Oct. 1 shootings.
Branson said he felt comfortable speaking about the matter now that evidence had been shared in open court during the preliminary hearing for three men charged in connection with the incident. The men currently are awaiting trial.
Branson emphasized that he supports “passive” cameras that could be reviewed with footage preserved by law enforcement following an incident.
That’s opposed to, for example, cameras that have someone monitoring them in real-time 24/7.
Branson said many people with privacy concerns about government surveillance cameras fear that the city would watch their every move by embarking on the latter.
“That’s just simply not true,” Branson said. “Nobody has time to do that. Nobody has the resources to do that.”
Privacy concerns flared in 2012, when the former Lawrence police chief made a formal proposal to install public surveillance cameras on Massachusetts Street and secured grant money to do it.
The City Commission said it would not accept the grant or permit the cameras until a policy for their use was developed and presented.
Multiple public forums on the issue brought out debate over whether the cameras were a good idea or an unreasonable intrusion on privacy. Critics included representatives of the regional chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
That downtown camera plan eventually fizzled out.
The University of Kansas campus has had public surveillance cameras since 2005, and now has hundreds of them. Branson said people don’t seem to be bothered by the outdoor cameras there, or at other places covered by cameras, like shopping districts.
“Why should downtown Lawrence by any different?” Branson said.
Businesses all over the community — including the “vast majority” of downtown businesses — have surveillance cameras and routinely help law enforcement by providing footage when requested, Branson said.
Bank surveillance cameras help catch robbers and forgery suspects, ATM cameras help catch people using someone else’s debit card, and retail cameras help catch shoplifters, Branson said. Downtown, cameras have been used in cases from fights to hit-and-run incidents to the recent homicides, he said.
“You do have a large number of people come to our entertainment corridor in the city,” Branson said. “Because of the activities that occur downtown, we do have more reports of crime.”
The Journal-World requested information about the total number and locations of city-owned cameras downtown, but did not receive an answer from the city last week. The Lawrence Police Department puts up temporary cameras for certain big events but currently has no permanent surveillance cameras downtown, the department told the newspaper in November.
Video footage shown at the preliminary hearing in the murder case included a city traffic camera at 11th and Massachusetts streets and two views from cameras at the city’s community center nearby. Also played were views from two cameras at the Vermont Towers apartment building.
Footage shows three men police identified as the suspects parking near the crime scene about 1:10 a.m. Oct. 1. The video pictures the corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets as the shootings unfold, the victims fall and bystanders scatter. More video shows the same men running back to a vehicle right after the shooting.
Defense attorneys have attacked the videos in this case, saying the figures are too dark, small and grainy to adequately show what happened and who was doing it.
Branson said videos alone may not be enough to prove a case but that they are a valuable tool to corroborate witness testimony or elucidate inconsistencies.
“Use of a video recording can allow the trier of fact — the jury — to reconcile these and see with their own eyes what occurred,” Branson said.