Police monitoring tactic worries council member

Parts of the city have been monitored by police cameras since February — something officials say helps solve crime but raises concern among some city leaders who fear they violate residents’ privacy.

Seven cameras have been up and running in undisclosed, public locations, such as alleys, for much of the year. But police kept them secret until this week, after the cameras were reported by the media.

Lt. Greg Stevens, a police spokesman, said the department still is not revealing camera locations because the department wants to catch criminals by surprise. He said the cameras are moved throughout areas prone to theft and have so far helped solve four burglaries.

But some Lubbock City Council members, who said they had no knowledge of the cameras until this week, worried the cameras would violate people’s privacy.

Councilman John Leonard said he was concerned some pictures from the cameras showed a resident’s backyard.

“There’s civil liberties at stake,” Leonard said. “You’re monitoring people and they don’t know about it.”

The police department contends the cameras are not an invasion of privacy.

Stevens said the cameras only capture images from a public vantage point — what an average resident or officer would be able to see from a public place.

Photos from the cameras released Friday are of Lubbock alleyways, with no addresses or other identifying features shown. One points to the ground, but another shows glimpses of a backyard.

“They’re not hidden,” Stevens said, though they may not be immediately noticeable.

The cameras do not record sound or movement and are activated by motion, when they snap a still photo. Nor can the cameras zoom, Stevens added.

Still, he said the cameras have “the possibility of misuse,” and the department takes seriously its duty to use them properly and legally.

Some on the council said they support the use of cameras.

Councilman Floyd Price, a retired police officer, said he applauds the police department for taking the initiative in trying to solve more burglaries.

Are they an invasion of privacy: “How can it be?” Price said.

The cameras are located in public right-of-ways and only come on when there is motion, he said. He compared them to the use of surveillance cameras in stores — on private property — which has helped solve numerous crimes over the years.

“I think they are a good tool to use,” he said. “One of the hardest crimes to solve is a burglary. I just wish we had one in every alley.”

Last year, 11.3 percent of the city’s more than 2,600 burglaries were solved, according to police records. Nationally, 12.6 percent of cases were closed last year, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.

The average dollar loss per U.S. burglary offense last year was $1,834, the FBI reported.

So far in Lubbock, the cameras have resulted in the recovery of tens of thousands of dollars worth of stolen property and one conviction.

“It’s an effort to solve a crime that is historically difficult to solve,” Stevens said.

Still, Leonard said he is concerned the City Council did not have a say in the use of the cameras, and he thinks the council needs to have a public discussion about them.

“I think this is a policy that needs to be set at the council level,” he said.

Not so, Price said.

“Do the police need permission from the City Council to do that? No,” he said. “I think government needs to stay out of law enforcement.”

The cameras were purchased through state funding and as a result were not subject to City Council approval — but the state did have to approve them, said Kevin Overstreet, the city’s emergency management and Homeland Security coordinator.

He helped secure the funding for the cameras — which cost about $2,000 for all seven.

Stevens said the department consulted with three other Texas cities that have similar cameras, as well as the city of Lubbock’s legal department.

He said police usually go through the photos only when there is a reported crime in a specific area.

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