Here's what we know about Columbus' proposed camera surveillance network

Details remain scant on plans for a security camera network to help prevent crime in Columbus, but if the concept is anything like what cities have done before then at least one study shows it may not prove all that effective in the first place.

In his State of the City address on May 21, Mayor Andrew Ginther said that by early 2025 his administration will establish a network of private and public security cameras that can be monitored in real-time. The network, Ginther said, could be used to get a bird's eye view of incidents before police cruisers arrive and would help law enforcement track crime suspects and locate missing persons.

But Ginther did not go into detail about what the system will look like or how it will operate. Neither did Downtown Columbus Inc., a nonprofit civics organization that is helping to create the camera network. More details on the program could be made public this summer, which will also include safety measures other than cameras, Amy Taylor, president of Downtown Columbus Inc. said in a prepared release.

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Security cameras keep an eye on the south side of COSI along the Scioto River in downtown Columbus. Mayor Andrew Ginther announced plans in May for a new private and public camera network to help fight crime in Columbus. Specifics have yet to be revealed on the network.
Security cameras keep an eye on the south side of COSI along the Scioto River in downtown Columbus. Mayor Andrew Ginther announced plans in May for a new private and public camera network to help fight crime in Columbus. Specifics have yet to be revealed on the network.

"Details are still being finalized, but we expect this initiative to act as a modern-day neighborhood watch to ensure a safe and inclusive downtown Columbus," said city spokeswoman Melanie Crabill. "These cameras will show what’s happening as events are unfolding, and this information has proven invaluable in delivering the best possible results for our residents and businesses."

Detroit's surveillance camera network

While officials have yet to offer specifics on Columbus' plans, Detroit launched a surveillance camera network called "Project Green Light" in 2016. Both Columbus police Chief Elaine Bryant and 1st Assistant Chief LaShanna Potts were formerly with the Detroit Police Department.

Detroit boasts that their surveillance camera program led to a 23% reduction in violent crime. The U.S. Department of Justice, however, found otherwise.

Detroit's camera system had "no statistically significant effects" on disorder or violent crime, according to the study published online with the DOJ's National Institute of Justice. The cameras did show an effect at deterring property destruction, but otherwise were found to have "no effects," meaning it is "unlikely to result in the intended outcome" and could even have a negative impact, according to the study.

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It's common for policing ideas to take off without much evidence to back them up, said Bryce Peterson, an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a researcher in CNA’s Center for Justice Research and Innovation.

When Detroit's camera project launched with a few dozen participants, Peterson said at first it did yield quicker response times by police and a reduction in crime. But as time passed and more businesses joined, it became clear the surveillance program wasn't going to help prevent crime much, Peterson said.

"As the program grew and grew and there are thousands who are now part of it, it became harder and harder to find the same sort of general benefit," he said. "Not only that, but what they found was when you add more cameras you actually increase the number of crimes being reported."

Columbus' camera network

Once Columbus' camera network is up and running, Crabill said the city would continually evaluate its effectiveness and assess what's being reported and gathered by police.

One-way cameras could prove effective is by helping police investigate crimes that have already occurred, said William Pelfrey, a professor who studies policing and crime analysis at Virginia Commonwealth University. Although research is "still pretty nascent," Pelfrey said he's heard anecdotes of how broader camera systems can help police "find a bad guy who commits an offense and runs away," and that such a system could allow police to access footage remotely and instantly instead of sending an officer to collect it from a business owner in person.

A City of Columbus staff member watches video feeds of traffic at the Columbus Traffic Management Center in Columbus on April 2, 2019. It is unknown if the traffic management system will be integrated into a new network of security cameras that the city is planning to link together.
A City of Columbus staff member watches video feeds of traffic at the Columbus Traffic Management Center in Columbus on April 2, 2019. It is unknown if the traffic management system will be integrated into a new network of security cameras that the city is planning to link together.

As long as Columbus' camera network operates simply as a high-definition version of security cameras that already exist, Pelfrey said there shouldn't be a problem.

But if the city starts to rely heavily on facial recognition software or only places cameras in minority neighborhoods, Pelfrey said it could lead to troublesome outcomes. There have been at least seven instances in the United States where a wrongful arrest was made due to facial recognition software and most people arrested were Black, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"If it's just a camera on a post, then it's not much different from what we tolerate now ... But we may be getting into 'Minority Report' territory 10 or 15 years from now," Pelfrey joked, referencing the 2002 Tom Cruise movie in which police use technology to predict who will commit a crime before it happens.

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Civil liberties, Crabill said, will be a top priority for Columbus as it develops its camera network. The city will work with a consultant and Downtown Columbus Inc. "to develop policies that both promote public safety while protecting personal privacy," Crabill told The Dispatch.

Privacy should still be a major concern among Columbus residents as the city prepares to implement a surveillance network, said Lisa Femia, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international digital rights group based in San Francisco that tracks law enforcement use of technology.

City of Columbus photograph that was used during Mayor Andrew Ginther's State of the City speech when he was announcing how public and private security cameras could be used to deter crime. (Credit: City of Columbus)
City of Columbus photograph that was used during Mayor Andrew Ginther's State of the City speech when he was announcing how public and private security cameras could be used to deter crime. (Credit: City of Columbus)

To start with, Femia said central Ohioans should ask who has access to surveillance data the cameras are collecting. If it includes police, the city, private business owners and even neighboring states, then residents should seek limits on the number of people who have access and the length of time that information is kept.

If strong restrictions aren't in place, Femia predicted a world in which someone comes to Ohio for an abortion and then heads home to a state that has outlawed the medical procedure where a woman could face punishment. The same could be true for firearms enthusiasts, Femia said, who could travel to a state with looser regulations to buy the guns they want before returning home.

"If you have cameras all over that are monitoring where people go, what they're doing ... watching them go to places of worship and reproductive health clinics, then it could really chill core First Amendment activity," Femia said. "This is all very sensitive information and kind of eliminates your basic expectation of privacy."

mfilby@dispatch.com

@MaxFilby

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Are you being watched? What to know about the new Columbus camera network

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