After the December 3 City Council meeting, Charlottesville Chief of Police Tim Longo stood outside the chamber talking to a woman who expressed her support for Longo’s plan to install closed circuit TV cameras on and around the Downtown Mall. Minutes before, it appeared that councilors were close to killing that plan, which would cost roughly $300,000. But a last-minute revision to the system, proposed by Councilor Kevin Lynch, kept it alive, albeit in a different form.
"The outcome was better than what looked like was going to come out of the meeting [on Mall security cameras]," says Police Chief Tim Longo.
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Councilors voted 4-1 to let Longo request bids for a camera system that, unlike the original, does not feed into a centralized system. Instead, Council approved a plan for individual cameras that could be moved between different locations as their use dictated. Mayor David Brown was the only councilor to vote against the revised plan.
Longo calls the plan "something I can work with."
"The outcome was better than what looked like was going to come out of the meeting," says Longo. "We can go to venders and say, ‘Here’s our limitations,’ and see what they can fit into that."
Longo says that the major disadvantage for the police of such a system is its inefficiency. Instead of going to a central location to retrieve data from a certain camera, police would have to access each camera individually—sometimes via ladder.
Despite vocal support from the public—many of them Mall business owners, some of whom painted a questionably bleak picture of a crime-ridden Downtown—councilors first appeared ready to deny Longo’s proposal to install 30 high-resolution cameras with the ability to zoom, pan and tilt on and around the Mall.
Dave Norris, who would go on to second the motion to approve the revised plan, questioned whether businesses could install their own cameras for safety. In fact, Longo pointed out that Virginia National Bank (VNB), which has a branch on the Mall, offered to pay for its own camera.
"When we heard that the city might be entertaining a project of some cameras for the outside Mall," says VNB President Glenn Rust, "we said if they needed a camera by our area, we would gladly donate it to the city."
Norris also asked Longo to address the question of a surveillance slippery slope. What’s to keep the city, he asked, from eventually putting cameras in all of its neighborhoods? Though Lynch sided with the use of cameras, he agreed with Norris that centralizing data goes down that slippery slope.
"I see too many problems with bringing all [data] into one place," he said.
Councilors apparently were more comfortable with the decentralized system that Lynch suggested, though Brown voted against the plan.
"I’m just personally uneasy with public surveillance," he says. "It’s not something that makes me feel comfortable moving forward with. I don’t want to see the United States become sort of a Britain, where there are cameras everywhere. Because I don’t see any clear benefit, I don’t really want to move forward with it."
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