Much to the dismay of a local civil libertarian, outgoing Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo will finally get the surveillance cameras on the Downtown Mall he’s long desired.
Hardware estimates fell from their previous high of $300,000, and the police surveillance system nine years in the making has finally won the support of City Council. In a February 16 voice vote, Council asked Longo to seek proposals after he said public cameras might cost less than $74,000.
“This is way less,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos. “It eases a lot of my objections.”
But cost isn’t the end of the objections.
“The key here, and what our City Council should be considering is: How can we protect the rights of citizens?” says John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit that wages legal battles to protect civil liberties.
However, because courts routinely rule that there’s no expectation of privacy in public places, Whitehead concedes that cameras are coming—and at a price beyond the $74K in hardware and $1,200 in monthly operating costs.
“People will start being very careful about what they say in public,” says Whitehead, noting that lip-reading software can now decipher the dialogue from silent recordings.
But not everyone shares Whitehead’s concerns. “When you’re in a public space, there is no privacy anymore,” says merchant Joan Fenton, a longtime advocate for the cameras and co-chair of the Downtown Business Association.
Still, Whitehead worries that the ensuing images could be used to blackmail someone or find their way into civil litigation such as divorce proceedings. He also doubts that Charlottesville citizens would remain willing to chalk their anti-government protests on the First Amendment monument under the gaze of a government camera.
“These things,” says Whitehead, “are going to alter our behavior.”
In his recent pitch for 36 cameras perched on light poles spanning the eight blocks between the Omni hotel and the nTelos Wireless Pavilion, Longo tried to assuage such concerns.
“We have no desire or expectation of going in to randomly view images without any specific law enforcement purpose,” Longo said. “We would go to these images in the aftermath of an event in an effort to help us solve an incident that has already occurred.”
There’s little doubt that surveillance cameras led to the capture of Jesse Matthew, the man who pleaded guilty last week to murdering University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, who crossed paths with Matthew on the Downtown Mall in 2014. Those cameras, however, were private.
“I would argue for cameras—private cameras first, public cameras second,” says Mary Loose DeViney, whose store’s video footage helped identify Matthew.
DeViney says her store, Tuel Jewelers, freely feeds low-resolution imagery directly to the police department, but she says she’d cease the flow if she were to learn of improper snooping. She contends that leaving cameras in private hands saves money and provides a useful check on government abuse.
“The devil’s in the details,” says DeViney.
A year ago, Longo, who retires May 1, promised to develop, in consultation with civil rights organizations, policies on the storage and use of the ensuing images. But Whitehead’s Rutherford Institute reports it has not been consulted, and a reporter’s question to Longo about the status of such consultations went unanswered by press time. (Citing time constraints, Longo declined to be interviewed for this story, except by e-mail.)
“I feel comfortable speaking for your next chief”—Longo assured Council on the topic of snooping—“that it would not be a policy consistent with law enforcement best practices.”
While mall cameras move forward, body cameras have already arrived. Just as the push for mall surveillance preceded the Matthew-Graham murder investigation, Longo has told Council that the department’s push for body cameras was already in the works before last year’s spate of taped police shootings of unarmed Americans.
“We have not chosen to go down this path in light of national events,” Longo told Council. “We actually started going down this path because our in-car camera system was manufacturer discontinued, and we couldn’t get it fixed.”
A City Hall official provided a reporter with a five-year contract showing Charlottesville will spend $272,357 for 100 body cameras and related software, hardware, training and storage. Longo told Council the system will be deployed by late spring or early summer.
Whitehead, who has written two books on the expansion of government surveillance, predicts that mall cameras may succeed in invading privacy without actually reducing crime.
“They displace crime to areas where there are no cameras,” says Whitehead. “So if you’re going to be effective in these programs, eventually you’re going to have to have cameras on every street corner.”