TAMPA — Tampa citizens have spent a year now under the watchful eye of cameras installed throughout downtown before last year’s Republican National Convention.
During that time, a Tampa Police Department spokesman told the City Council on Thursday, the cameras have helped solve crimes and tamp down on potential criminal activity in some parts of town.
Police Capt. Michael Baumaister told council members the department’s 78 mounted cameras and 15 mobile cameras, originally bought with a federal security grant for the RNC, have helped solve several high-profile crimes, including an assault and battery in a downtown parking garage last November.
The man accused in the attack, Glen Mayfield, fled the Fort Brooke parking garage but he couldn’t escape the cameras. Mayfield was homeless.
“We were able to follow the individual all the way to the park. He changed his clothes. We were able to get officers in their pretty quick,” Baumaister said. “If those cameras were not in place, we probably would not have identified him as quickly.”
Police arrested him in Lykes Gaslight Park. He remains in the Hillsborough County Jail, charged with sexual battery, kidnapping and failing to register as a sex offender, among other charges.
The mobile cameras have been loaned to St. Petersburg and Boca Raton to monitor large events in those cities. They’ve also helped deter crime in parts of Tampa where business owners have complained about shoplifting, Baumaister said.
“We put banners and blue lights on them,” Baumaister said. “We made them very overt.”
When they were installed last year, the $2 million worth of new surveillance raised concerns among some, including the American Civil Liberties Union, that they might lead police to abuse people’s right to privacy.
After Mayor Bob Buckhorn made it clear the cameras weren’t coming down, the Tampa City Council asked that their use be closely supervised and that the police avoid peeping through people’s windows. Council members also asked that the recordings be erased after 120 days unless they’re being kept as evidence in an investigation.
Baumaister said Thursday the recordings are routinely erased after 30 days. Each person who uses the camera system has to use a unique log-in and demonstrate a reason to use the cameras.
“We can audit what people are doing with the cameras,” Baumaister said. “They have to have a reason to use the cameras. If they don’t have a reason, they don’t get to.”
Baumaister said the police department refers to the surveillance tapes as often as once a week in reference to some kind of criminal activity.
“How many times have you actually identified a suspect with cameras?” asked Councilwoman Mary Mulhern.
“We’ve identified some different burglary suspects. We solved some crimes with them,” Baumaister said. “But I can’t give you a specific number.”
Investigators don’t always report when videos from the cameras contribute to solving a crime, Baumaister added.
Mulhern pressed Baumaister to provide some hard numbers.
“When we’re asked to appropriate money for this, we need to know if they’re actually effective,” Mulhern said.
The cameras are operated by a private contractor overseen by the police department’s Criminal Intelligence Bureau. Renewing that contract will cost the city $164,000, but the department is trying to reduce that figure by taking on some of the maintenance work itself, Baumaister said.
Mulhern, who opposed the cameras when they were bought last year, repeated her opposition to them. So did Councilman Frank Reddick, who challenged the idea of using the mobile cameras to monitor large gatherings in city parks.
“Do those people who pay a fee to rent those shelters and go to a public park — do they have a right to know they’re being spied on?” Reddick said.
Assistant City Attorney Rebecca Kert countered that the U.S. Supreme Court has said people in public can’t expect to have the kind of privacy they would have in their home. That’s especially true today, when nearly every cell phone has a camera built into it, she said.
“Everyone’s got cameras these days,” Kert said. “You should not be surprised if someone’s taking your picture when you’re out in public.”