The proverbial elephant sat in City Council chambers on Monday, barely attracting a nod.
The topic was a plan to put 10 cameras in the downtown core as a crimefighting tool, along with a street sweeper and extra police patrols. Following a presentation by Police Chief Pete Carey, Councilor Tim Leigh filled a long pause by asking if the sidewalk cleaner would pick up chewing gum.
Other Councilors wanted to know how much the plan, endorsed by the mayor after being pushed by citizen groups, would cost. Councilor Bernie Herpin hit on the mammoth only briefly.
"I'm a little concerned about cameras, given the Big Brother aspect of them," he said carefully, before moving quickly along to another topic.
Councilors Lisa Czelatdko and Angela Dougan, and even Mayor Steve Bach, offered similarly lukewarm concerns. Council President Scott Hente made a point of saying he wasn't concerned.
Perhaps it was simply the calm before the storm. Loring Wirbel, co-chair of the local American Civil Liberties Union, says he'll show up on March 13, when Council votes on the cameras. He expects others will, too.
"I'm starting to wonder what planet he's on," Wirbel says of the mayor. "I think Bach just does things without thinking."
Indeed, the mayor's stance seems odd, given his earlier feelings on red-light cameras. When he unilaterally ended that program last year (to Council's chagrin), Bach said the cameras had been ineffective in preventing accidents — essentially in changing motorists' behavior. Now, he apparently believes they'll change pedestrians' behavior, fixing the apparent problem of "women in particular not being comfortable coming downtown."
The police already have a Downtown Area Response Team, two officers conducting daytime foot patrols and partnering with the military and downtown businesses to fight crime. The cameras, and other "safety" improvements, are part of Bach's larger goal of creating a "downtown renaissance." Other components, outlined by the mayor at last week's town hall meeting, include attracting a entertainment or sports-related anchor to downtown, and possibly building a U.S. Olympic-themed museum.
The police department hasn't determined exactly how the cameras will be used; for instance, having footage considered as evidence in court can create legal issues. But Carey says they should deter crime and help police apprehend suspects.
"Regarding the cameras, we are, in the United States, as far as law enforcement, probably a decade or two behind the United Kingdom," Carey told Council. "They have cameras everywhere, and it is not only a great deterrent, but when you play it back and you have some digital photography of the crime, it makes it a lot more solid."
Carey is correct about the U.K. in surveillance. More than a million cameras are thought to be watching people across that nation at an overall cost of at least $800 million.
But Carey's conclusion that cameras fight crime may be wrong. The BBC reported in 2009 that an internal police report found only one crime solved for every 1,000 cameras there. Likewise, a pilot program conducted in 2008 in downtown Colorado Springs yielded no sure results of cameras' effectiveness, though the department points to a study of cameras in downtown Baltimore (which seemed to produce a lasting drop in crime) as positive evidence.
The Springs' 10 cameras will cost $163,025 up front, and an additional $25,000 in annual maintenance. But that could be the tip of the iceberg.
"I view it as a test market," Bach said of the downtown program. "If it's successful, we should look at it for all areas of town."