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Keeping an Eye on Video Monitoring


 

 

Ken Hampian is city administrative officer for the City of San Luis Obispo. He can be reached at khampian@slocity.org . This article is adapted with permission from the April 2007 issue of Public Management (PM) magazine published by ICMA, the International City/County Management Association based in Washington, D.C.

Last year, I was in a city hall conference room discussing with staff members the options for dealing with persistent and costly vandalism at city facilities; in this case, at a park and in city hall restrooms. The discussion led to the idea of video monitoring as a strategy to discourage vandalism. Like many people, I’m of the generation that grew up reading George Orwell’s book 1984, and so my first reaction to this idea was that it gave me the creeps! At the gut level, I just hated the idea of video monitoring for anything other than legitimate police work, and I didn’t want to see a lot of cameras in public places.

The staff, to their credit, suppressed the justifiable urge to ask, "Where’ve you been, buddy?" Instead, they calmly pointed out that monitoring cameras are already everywhere: in stores, outdoor malls, shopping center parking lots, elevators, many government buildings, police cars and, for several years, at our very own public swimming pool.

They were right. Monitoring cameras are already everywhere. They are so prevalent, in fact, that government and business managers (just like me) often don’t know whether, or to what extent, they are being used within their own organizations. Cameras are so cheap and easy to install that their use is often spreading ahead of the awareness of agency and company decision-makers.

Developing a Policy

Before I would consent to installing more cameras, however, I had to address my discomfort. I asked that we create strong public policy accountability to guide when and how such cameras could be used, and that we start as we always do: Find a good policy developed by another city and see if we can adapt it to our needs.

We soon learned that policies guiding the use of cameras were not nearly as ubiquitous as the cameras themselves - not by a long shot. Our staff sent out an inquiry to virtually every city in California asking whether they used video monitoring cameras and, if so, whether written policies guide their use. We received responses that generally shook out like this:

  1. Yes, we use cameras, but we don’t have policies that guide their use.
  2. No, we don’t use cameras, so we don’t need policies that guide their use.
  3. No, we don’t use them - uh, wait, I guess we really do use them. But we don’t have policies that guide their use.
  4. Please send us a copy of your policy if you develop one. (This was the most common response.)

So we weren’t able to take the easy way out, and now San Luis Obispo has a written, council-approved policy that guides our use of video monitoring. This policy was developed through an open and in clusive public process, including input and scrutiny by city advisory bodies, citizens and local media.

Involving the Community

Many citizens, advisory body members and media representatives initially shared my concern about the creepiness of using video cameras. After a lot of community conversation and a quick random tour of our downtown area - which revealed myriad monitoring cameras (both indoors and outdoors) installed by private busi nesses and other government agencies - folks got it: Monitoring cameras are ubiquitous because the technology is cheap and easy, and the cameras are ef fective. Given this reality, having a policy that governs the use of such cameras is a good, protective approach and not threatening or intrusive.

In the end, we had the support of all major parties, even the media, when we presented the policy to the city council. Council members unanimously adopted the policy with a minimal amount of discussion and no controversy. The major areas addressed by the policy are:

  • Appropriate uses of video monitoring systems;
  • Criteria and approval process;
  • Location and placement;
  • Notification requirements;
  • Oversight responsibility;
  • Protection of recorded information and limited access; and
  • Need for ongoing review.

Accountability Is Essential

The cornerstone of the policy is that no camera is installed without its placement going through a rigorous internal review process, which requires any department head requesting a camera to state specifically:

  • The objectives for implementing the system, such as deterrence, detection or some combination of the two. In short, what will video monitoring at this location achieve?
  • How the equipment will be used, including the location of cameras and reception equipment, personnel authorized to operate the system, and times when monitoring will be in effect (and staffed, if applicable).
  • Any other deterrence or detection mea sures that were considered and the reasons that video monitoring is the best solution.
  • Any specific, verifiable reports of incidents of crime or significant safety concerns that have occurred in the location to be placed under video monitoring.
  • Possible effects, if any, of the proposed video monitoring system on personal privacy and how the effects will be mitigated.
  • Appropriate consultation with stakeholders, including the public, or an explanation of why this is not necessary.
  • Signage strategy advising the public that video monitoring is occurring.
  • Approach to installing and maintaining the system.
  • Fiscal impact and availability of funding.

If these questions are answered satisfactorily and the camera is approved by the city administrative officer, then he or she must notify the city council and any employees who might be working in an area where a camera is being installed. Thus, disclosure and accountability are built into the process every step of the way.

You can find a complete copy of San Luis Obispo’s video monitoring policy online at www.slocity.org/finance/policies.asp .