Should the Downtown Association install cameras that monitor the Pedestrian Mall?


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The actions of the Iowa City Downtown Association are a signal of its willingness to accept responsibility for what happens in Iowa City and offer a realistic measure that may prove beneficial to all citizens — without tapping their pocketbooks.

Surveillance footage from the Pedestrian Mall can, at the very least, serve as a source of video evidence for police investigating more serious crimes such as sexual assault and robbery. While conceding that their use as a deterrent for violent crime has been proven negligible at best, the fact remains that the video records can afford officers a reliable source to identify criminals, corroborate eyewitness accounts, and further discern the truth in the aftermath of a crime.

With this in mind, these cameras would serve as an added safety measure in the violence-ridden bar district — at the expensive of bar owners who profit from drunkenness rather than the public that is left to deal with the consequences.

Downtown Association President Leah Cohen told The Daily Iowan that the cameras would neither be actively monitored nor accessible by anyone other than the police. Under these guidelines, the cameras are more akin to those in apartment hallways: They are rarely — if ever — monitored by the complex’s owners. But should a violent crime take place in that hallway, they offer a much-needed resource for investigators.

Even without the added safety, citizens would be wrong to assume a role in these deliberations to begin with. Both legally and rationally, these companies can install such surveillance as they see fit. Citizens would not be sacrificing any element of their right to privacy in a highly visible public setting such as the Ped Mall.

Aside from this, these are private businesses spending (mostly) their money to install these cameras.

They have a right to — and a vested interest in — monitoring the area surrounding their business. Their willingness to offer the footage to Iowa City police is simply a benefit for the safety of our citizens.

— by Tyler Hakes


In questioning the Downtown Association’s proposal, I don’t doubt the members’ good intentions.

But a couple facets of the plan make me balk.

First, the efficacy of these cameras is highly questionable. Brandon Welsh, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, told the DI in December that closed-circuit television has no effect on deterring crime in town centers. His research only showed that cameras decrease vehicle crime in closed parking structures.

As a rule, we should rely on cops to crack down on crime, rather than cameras. The group shouldn’t even consider installing cameras unless its members have clear evidence the cameras are effective in public settings comparable with the Pedestrian Mall.

In addition, we have to recognize the difference between public and private. In this case, we’d be allowing a private group — the Downtown Association — to install cameras that monitor a public place. There would be no debate if these businesses wanted to install cameras on their premises and submit tapes to the police when crimes occur inside their establishments. It’s their property. But to expand private businesses’ purview to a public space is a slippery slope.

If the city wants to save money, it could tax the businesses and install the cameras itself. When you transfer control to private hands, you concurrently lose democratic accountability. Citizens have little say in what goes on with private operators, and the possibility of misuse skyrockets.

If the city wants to have cameras downtown, let’s have a discussion about the proper role of public security vis-à-vis privacy. But citizens should reject the fallacy that private businesses have any right to record a public area such as the Pedestrian Mall — even if such an argument is couched in altruistic terms.

— by Shawn Gude

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