Articles

Gastonia, N.C.'s Addition of Surveillance Cameras Prompts Creating Protocol to Prevent Abuse

City Council members voted unanimously last week to approve a five-year contract with Security 101, a national firm with a Charlotte office, to install 52 infrared surveillance cameras throughout downtown.

by Michael Barrett, Gaston Gazette / September 12, 2017
In downtown Gastonia, N.C. Flickr/Dora Meulman

(TNS) -- Gastonia’s decision to beef up downtown security by installing dozens of surveillance cameras may come as no surprise in the modern era.

But to some, it’s a sign of the city entering a slippery slope, and provides even more reason to demand that proper protocol be used to prevent abuse of the technology.

“It’s always very tricky when you’re trying to balance public security with everyone’s privacy rights,” said Mike Meno, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “As long as city officials remain transparent, have strong safeguards and listen to any community concerns, while operating within the confines of the law, there are definitely steps that can be taken to prevent that kind of abuse.”

City Council members voted unanimously last week to approve a five-year contract with Security 101, a national firm with a Charlotte office, to install 52 infrared surveillance cameras throughout downtown. The deal will cost the city more than $288,000, and the cameras will work in conjunction with a new Wi-Fi system, a 60-terabyte server and video management software.

Phase 1’s 52 cameras will be installed over the next four months along Main Avenue, in the north parking areas flanking the Rotary Centennial Paviolion, and along South South Street between Franklin Boulevard and Main Avenue. They will be mounted on utility poles and city-owned buildings, depending on the strategic locations that need coverage, said Deputy City Manager Todd Carpenter.

Plans are to expand coverage of downtown and the Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment district over three more phases in the near future. That would cost another $145,000, though $36,000 of that would come from federal transit funds.

Who will have access?

Gastonia Chief Information Officer Beverly Bieker said the city has been eyeing an expansive public surveillance camera system like this for some time, and pairing it with a public Wi-Fi system upgrade allowed Gastonia to maximize its investment.

“(Surveillance) cameras are not unique to downtown Gastonia,” she said.

Bieker said they will not be monitored by anyone consistently, but each camera will record 24 hours a day. Digital video from each will be retained for 30 days before being deleted, barring a criminal case justifying its need to be held longer.

Council members asked a handful of questions about the proposed system, such as who would have regular access to it

“Technology Services will have access to the camera and the data,” she said. “The police department will be able to have access as well.”

Any members of the public who wished to see footage from the cameras would have to file public information requests that would then have to be approved by City Attorney Ash Smith, Bieker said.

Bieker said there’s not a real problem with crime in downtown Gastonia, but there is a perception of crime occurring there regularly. Other cities installing such systems have reported that the security cameras offered an extra layer of security and comfort for visitors and business owners, she said.

“It’s really just the perception,” she said. “Downtown is one of the safest areas we have.”

Preventing abuse

Adina Rutenberg and her brother opened Java House, a coffee shop and café, at 200 W. Main Ave. downtown in January. She said they haven’t had any issues with crime since being there. But she applauded the city’s decision to put in a high-tech public surveillance system.

“We’re completely pro-camera,” she said. “There are just so many benefits. It’s going to make us feel safer, not that we feel unsafe here, but it will add an extra level of security.”

The way Rutenberg sees it, the cameras will help “to keep the honest people honest.”

Meno agreed that such municipal camera systems are spreading like wildfire, particularly across cities such as Charlotte, as law enforcement agencies strive to employ every resource possible to enhance public safety. But the key to making the system fair and effective is to be open about how it’s being used, he said.

”There are a whole host of issues that deserve a strong and clear policy, so the public knows exactly how this system is going to be used, who’s going to have access to the footage, where are the cameras going to be directed, and how does the city plan to use the footage,” he said.

Meno said Gastonia leaders should seriously consider how they will maintain oversight of the people with access to the cameras.

“What everybody should want to prevent is the abuse of this technology by a rogue individual who perhaps has a personal ax to grind,” he said. “And we’ve seen countless situations where a very powerful surveillance technology like this can be used to target particular individuals suspected of a crime, or to even target specific communities in a discriminatory way.”

©2017 Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.