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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Keep the cameras in Tampa

The surveillance cameras left behind after the Republican National Convention last year are proving to be effective at solving crimes and tamping down criminal activity.

Tampa police told the City Council this week that the cameras were directly responsible for the arrest of an assault suspect, and that they have been helpful in solving burglaries. Their visibility downtown may also be responsible for deterring criminal behavior like shoplifting.

Clearly, the benefits of having the cameras outweigh the privacy concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union and others when the cameras remained after the RNC left town.

City Council members should agree to spend as much as $164,000 to keep the cameras operating.

The $2 million in surveillance equipment was purchased with a federal grant in advance of the RNC. In all, 78 mounted cameras and 15 mobile cameras were left behind, and Mayor Bob Buckhorn argued to keep them in place.

Critics raised concerns about the unblinking eye of Big Brother monitoring the movements of innocent people going about their business. Concerns were also raised about access to the images captured by the cameras.

But as police described this week, the images recorded are erased every 30 days, access is restricted, and those who do look at the images must give a reason.

As often as once a week, police said, the images are viewed to aid in a criminal investigation.

City Council members Mary Mulhern and Frank Reddick oppose the cameras. Mulhern wants specifics on just how many crimes have been solved. Reddick is concerned about privacy rights when mobile cameras are trained on large gatherings.

Police should consider establishing a record of their use of the cameras, as well as the outcomes of that usage. From what they say, the numbers would fully support the city’s investment.

But privacy concerns now pale in comparison to security concerns. People in public places have no expectation of privacy in this increasingly dangerous post-9/11 world. Businesses routinely use cameras, and individuals frequently use their smartphones to record public events.

The Boston Marathon bombing earlier this year pretty much ended the privacy debate over the placement of security cameras at large public gatherings.

The RNC established Tampa as a city capable of hosting a large national event with significant security concerns. It proved to be a public relations boon and a financial windfall for the city.

Although unintended, its most enduring legacy may be a safer downtown.

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