It is time that the city of Lawrence reconsider the use of video cameras in high-profile public spaces.
In 2012, the Lawrence Police Department hoped to use a Justice Department grant to install surveillance cameras at intersections downtown. Former Police Chief Tarik Khatib advocated for the cameras, noting that video footage captured by a private security camera had helped solve at least one previous downtown shooting case. “It is probably past time that we had something like this,” Khatib said at the time.
But the City Commission said it would not accept the grant and permit the cameras until a policy for their use was developed. Public forums on the issue raised concerns that the cameras were an unreasonable intrusion on privacy. Critics included the regional chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The downtown camera plan died amid the concerns.
But in the wake of the Oct. 1 triple homicide at the intersection of 11th and Massachusetts streets, downtown surveillance cameras are something that should be looked at again. The previous plan was for six cameras at key downtown intersections. At least that many should be considered.
Lawrence police do have surveillance cameras at the intersection of Clinton Parkway and Wakarusa Drive, but those cameras were set up to scan for license plate numbers of vehicles suspected of being used in a crime and to send notification to police if the plate is spotted.
The police department also installs temporary cameras to oversee areas where large crowds are expected, but those cameras are removed once the event is over.
For a model, the city can look to the University of Kansas campus, which has used public surveillance cameras since 2005. At present, KU has more than 700 cameras on campus. The cameras are at intersections, in parking lots and at residence halls. The cameras have come at a price tag of more than $500,000.
Lawrence’s new police chief, Gregory Burns Jr., who was sworn in the day after the triple homicide on Massachusetts Street, has extensive experience with video cameras. In his previous department in Louisville, Ky., there were 100 video cameras in the downtown area.
“Video footage could make the difference between us solving a crime and not solving a crime, and that has happened a lot,” Burns said.
Video cameras have been used successfully in other communities to both solve and deter crime. The downtown shooting was a wake-up call. The concerns about privacy notwithstanding, video cameras could be an important part of creating a safer, more secure downtown. It’s an idea the city of Lawrence should reconsider.