by Eric Ginsburg
Greensboro City Council expressed serious concerns about a plan to install wireless surveillance cameras downtown, and as one city staffer put it, the idea is clearly “not ready for prime time.”
Confusion and skepticism reigned at a Greensboro City Council work session last week, as the police department presented an initial idea for wireless surveillance cameras in the city core and council members raised serious questions about privacy, transparency and the need for the expenditure.
As she introduced the item, interim police Chief Anita Holder emphasized that the department wanted to check council’s pulse on the issue and see if it warranted moving forward and committing staff time to figuring out the specifics.
“This is just a concept presentation,” she said. “We’re not bringing you a recommendation.”
Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson immediately offered her support before the presentation actually began, later realizing she was confused about what the idea actually entailed, foreshadowing the confusion that would ensue.
Council spent a significant amount of time discussing whether the footage on additional surveillance cameras would be a matter of public record, a touchy issue in the wake of the police department’s refusal to release footage from Officer TJ Bloch’s body-worn camera after he shot and killed 47-year-old woman Chieu-di Thi Vo earlier this year.
It was also unclear in the department’s presentation whether the cameras would be limited to downtown or whether it would cover a broader area. Capt. Joel Cranford said the rough idea involves launching a pilot downtown that could be expanded to other parts of the city if council so desired, but the proposal already included locations in neighborhoods directly outside of downtown. That includes College Hill, a neighborhood immediately west of downtown abutting UNCG, which camera proponent Councilman Zack Matheny said the neighborhood association requested.
The strongest reservations among council about adding police-surveillance cameras downtown came from Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who said she is concerned that cameras could make the city feel less friendly and that plenty of people would resent feeling monitored.
“I have a real issue with us becoming a surveillance state,” Vaughan said. “I have trouble with us putting surveillance cameras in neighborhoods. I wouldn’t want one on my street, quite frankly. How do we choose whose neighborhood it goes in? That concerns me, and we have to give this more thought.”
Vaughan said that “certainly we need to pause” on the issue given confusion about whether footage would be a public record, adding that she applauds the effort but that there are significant concerns.
Several council members, including Vaughan, said that the surveillance cameras are a separate issue from the body-worn cameras that patrol officers wear. Councilman Mike Barber was among those calling for increased transparency, asking if another department could manage the cameras and grant police access to footage to avoid footage being shielded by personnel law. The department is currently arguing that tape from Officer Bloch’s body-worn camera is protected by personnel laws.
Police department representatives appeared to balk at the idea, but Holder said she wouldn’t support moving forward with surveillance cameras “until those details [about public records] are ironed out.” She added that most of the recordings would be public record but said there is a provision in the law that if it is part of a criminal investigation or personnel record due to an incident, it would be protected.
Cranford offered that maybe the cameras could be shared between city departments, mentioning fire and city officials as examples.
Police lawyer Jim Clark said that criminal intelligence and criminal investigations would be protected but added that the department could determine to release footage if it desired.
“Basically the police department is talking about controlling this and that’s basically a decision where the base determination is that this won’t be a public record,” he said.
Barber said he would like the city to take the lead nationally on being more transparent with recordings taken by police, asking that his suggestions be considered even if it rankled some people.
“That may give some people anxiety, but that [idea] excites me,” he said.
Matheny called on his colleagues to wholeheartedly support the idea, saying it would be especially important considering impending, large-scale development projects downtown. A few council members expressed reserved support, including Marikay Abuzuaiter, who suggested that downtown cameras are a commonplace practice in nearly every other city.
The idea for the cameras actually began under former police chief Ken Miller, who wanted to “grow the technology capabilities of the police department,” city spokesman Donnie Turlington said.
“The idea was that GPD could possibly better manage high-profile incidents, festivals and other ventures downtown by having camera access,” Turlington said in an email after the meeting. “Late last year/early this year, there were also instances of vandalism of vehicles at the new police headquarters parking lot and incidents downtown where GPD thought that having surveillance footage would have been helpful. On top of those issues, with the impending growth of downtown Chief Miller felt the cameras were needed, but it was just a concept.”
Cranford cited the same reasons for exploring the idea in an interview.
“There’s no one rash of crime that I think necessitates cameras downtown,” he said. Instead, cameras might provide additional leads in a variety of potential incidents, such as an assault on a man who ultimately died of his injuries after leaving a club earlier this year.
At the council work session on Sept. 11, Holder offered another reason cameras could end up being helpful.
“One of the advantages to police is similar to what you saw in Boston,” she said, referring to the manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombing last year. “From a selfish point of view it could serve us well in that way.”
Councilman Tony Wilkins raised yet another issue — whether the cameras could raise privacy concerns for people who live downtown. Looking at the potential locations for downtown cameras, Wilkins said he zoomed in on Center Pointe residents Roy Carroll and Teresa Yon’s condos, adding that cameras could be pointed into private residences.
Matheny immediately fired back, asking if Wilkins believed a Greensboro police officer would zoom in on someone’s home. Wilkins said he is generally in favor of the cameras but that his privacy concern remains.
Cranford said there wouldn’t be someone regularly monitoring the cameras, adding that they would be of use for large downtown events, to gather potential leads after a crime and to act as a deterrent. Only certain officers would have access to moving the aim of a wireless camera, he said, something that would be closely tracked and could be reviewed by supervisors.
Barber responded that having good policies in place doesn’t necessarily prevent people from still violating the intent of the camera program.
Councilman Jamal Fox took the opposite tack of Wilkins and Vaughan who addressed issues that could arise in residential areas, saying that he isn’t fully on board with the surveillance cameras unless the program extended beyond downtown to potentially include high-crime areas in his district.
“We’ve had a lot of crime throughout and particularly on East Market Street,” he said. “If this can be something that can help that college community I would like to see if we can open up and make it citywide.”
Interim Assistant City Manager Wesley Reid said staff appreciates the feedback, adding that the idea is “not ready for prime time.” Reid attempted to figure out whether there was a consensus among council members about whether to consider the wireless surveillance cameras citywide or only downtown, and whether council felt it would be worth continuing to look at options related to the cameras at all.
He didn’t exactly receive a clear answer. A few council members suggested information that they would find helpful, such as other city’s policies and what private surveillance cameras exist already downtown but providing no unified response.
Still, Cranford expressed optimism after the meeting.
“As technology continues to grow it’s important that the city, and residents and city officials have these conversations… to see how everybody feels before we put these cameras into place,” he said in an interview. “I guess I’m saying that it’s a healthy debate.”