Several High Springs residents have voiced concerns about a powerful traffic surveillance camera mounted above Main Street and First Avenue that according to some city officials is capable of zooming in on private property close enough to reveal details about individuals in at least one downtown restaurant and a convenience store.
HIGH SPRINGS – Is “Big Brother” watching you? If you are in High Springs, that might be the case. While cameras are a boon to police departments everywhere in helping to prevent crime and/or apprehend criminals, they also can be used to harass and intimidate law abiding citizens.
After recent revelations about an apparently powerful traffic camera recently installed on Main Street and First Avenue, local attorney Linda Rice Chapman is raising concerns about the way in which video surveillance equipment is being used in High Springs. These concerns come on the heels of comments made during the March 28, 2013 city commission meeting. In a report by High Springs Police Chief Steve Holley, in which he talked about the excellent equipment advancements made by his department as part of their effort to bring emergency dispatch services back to the City, Holley mentioned the installation by Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) of a camera mounted on the communications tower.
“FDOT installed it at no cost to the City,” explained Holley. He further referenced traffic cameras, which have been installed at the corners of Main and First and Main and US Hwy 441.
“Using the camera, our officers have been able to see a drug deal in progress,” said Holley. “Dispatchers have located an intoxicated driver and gotten officers on the scene before that driver could get out on the road.” In addition, Holley explained, “One of our dispatchers actually witnessed a crash and when the officer found it out, he put him on the witness sheet because he saw the crash happen and could identify the driver because he was watching through the camera. If there’s a traffic light out or an accident, frequently our dispatcher knows about it before the call even comes in.”
While the many applications for the video cameras may make a compelling case in its favor, at least one element of this surveillance capability has been a concern expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and now some High Springs residents who prefer to remain anonymous.
During the same commission meeting, audience members heard Commissioner Bob Barnas say, “You can take that one camera down in this corner [apparently referring to the camera at Main Street and First] and zoom in and see who’s sitting at the Great Outdoors Bar.” Chief Holley confirmed Commissioner Barnas’ statement, but added, “You can’t hear them…but you can see quite a bit.”
And the Great Outdoors isn’t the only private property visible through the cameras. Holley told commissioners that activity at a nearby convenience store could be seen as well. “You can sit up here. You can take the one at 441 and North Main and see who’s walking out of the Kangaroo.” Holley said.
Chapman questions whether having equipment that can look into the Great Outdoors Bar and demonstrating same to others constitutes the proper use of the equipment by the police department. “I am making a public records request for all the paperwork related to the cameras to see if they actually do have the capability of seeing into the Great Outdoors Restaurant and how much can be viewed by the camera,” she said. “I have grave concerns about how it [surveillance equipment] can be misused and who has access to the media.”
Apparently, the ACLU has the same concerns. In an October 4, 2012 report by Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, he said, “The ACLU of Michigan recently put out an interesting report on surveillance cameras.” In his report he said ACLU of Michigan summarized the policy arguments against cameras. “But it also focuses on a uniquely disturbing application of surveillance cameras: their deployment in residential neighborhoods.”
While downtown High Springs is not a residential neighborhood, it still brings up an interesting question. If the ACLU is concerned that picking up your mail out of your mailbox in a residential neighborhood, with a police officer’s ability to use his camera’s features to see who you are getting mail from is of concern, how is that different from being able to see who you meet with, how many drinks you ordered, what you had for lunch, or what you may have been reading while you waited for your other guests to arrive?
In a telephone interview, Chief Holley explained, “What I meant when I said that ‘you could see quite a bit’ was that you can see quite a bit down the road, not in the restaurant. Actually, vegetation and the fireplace would take up quite a bit of the view, so you really wouldn’t see as much looking into the restaurant with our camera as you would if you were walking down the street.”
Furthermore, Holley explained that the cameras do not record. “We would need quite a bit more equipment to record everything seen by these cameras,” he said. “If we had that kind of money, I’d put it to use updating our police cars instead,” he said with a slight chuckle.
However, Rena Elmir of the ACLU of Michigan in the referenced report commented, “The idea that this could be misused by police—even if it’s just one person, one bad apple—is pretty scary.”
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