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Cameras not the answer to recent violence

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 08, 2009 7:30 AM

To help curb the recent increase in violence around downtown, in particular on the Pedestrian Mall, the Iowa City police are considering installing several surveillance cameras to capture future attacks (such as last week’s bizarre punching blitzkrieg). Now, being a decently well-read town and all, people seem to be aware of the concept of Big Brother, and the knee-jerk reaction of most is a bend toward paranoia that His e’er watchful gaze will pound down on us.

But let’s step back a moment, breathe, and try to see some of this forest. The cameras are nothing more than panopticon tactics, themselves knee-jerks for often-drinking-related downtown antics of which the police force has lost control — and this costly, largely untested scheme won’t get it back. The issue of rising local violence has far deeper roots than kids acting up because of a lack of supervision, and, granted, addressing the problem will be complicated and slow in realization, but this is a more poorly thought-out tack than others local law enforcement could take.

Police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said the plan for the cameras is still in its very early stages, and a good deal of research and “brainstorming” still has to go into their implementation. Discussions of cost seem to be at the center of the planning phase, and with police funding already pulled in too many directions, there’s going to need to be some creativity in coming up with the cash. One option, Kelsay said, is a series of grants. However, he was nonspecific about where those grants might come from.

“It would be best to have more officers out there,” he said, but he noted the even more prohibitive cost of increasing police presence — which is really a shame, because a “presence” is a far more effective means of curbing violence, especially with officers being animate and capable of stepping into a fight rather than reeling it onto a tape. Examples of surveillance techniques in other towns have had some (but rather limited) success with identifying suspects. And cameras are, on the other hand, relatively cheaper: in the region of $15,000 apiece (plus systems and installation costs … plus whatever manhours (it might be 24) would go into the tapes’ review, plus the awkward situation where one of these immobile eyes in the sky will notice an assault taking place, having to radio one of our prohibitively expensive protectors to the scene where they would have had to have been to prevent it anyway.

The problem is not with the inefficiency of the plan. The problem is that we’re missing the damn forest. This is a panic move, a visceral reaction to a known local problem with no known cure. While it’s great the police are finally responding, this is not the way to do it. There’s Waldo! Arrest Him!


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