Cameras worth a try in Bluffton's hot spots

Use of 14 surveillance cameras could potentially increase public safety and deter crime.

newsroom@islandpacket.comMarch 7, 2014 

We'll be the first to admit that the idea of surveillance cameras in public places makes us a bit uneasy. Even in the 21st century where fears of terrorism run large, there's an uneasy, Orwellian feel to indiscriminate monitoring by "Big Brother" government, even on public streets where there's no expectation of privacy.

That being said, a growing number of municipalities and counties say they are finding the cameras useful for monitoring crowds to ensure public safety during festivals and other large, outdoor events, for deterring crime and making public spaces more hospitable for visitors and residents and for providing evidence when an offense is caught on tape, aiding investigations.

Thus, it's no surprise that Bluffton, at the urging of Police Chief Joey Reynolds, wants to join in and install 14 surveillance cameras in public places including Buckwalter Parkway and Old Town. We see no substantial reason to oppose the plan to cluster the cameras around Bluffton's Calhoun Street and Buckwalter Place.

The cameras would record on a 10-day loop. Footage would feed to a network visible from the police department's headquarters. During festivals and other events that draw big crowds, police would use a trailer as a command center to monitor foot traffic.

And most importantly, the cameras would be installed in public places and would not target individual properties. In other words, just because you're the target of a lot of police complaints doesn't mean a camera will be aimed at your house. This would be a slippery slope that we could not support.

But it's important to keep in mind that the jury is still out on whether cameras actually make public spaces safer. Some research suggests they just move crime to unmonitored public areas or inside homes and other private locations.

Often, the cameras offer a mixed bag. In the case of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, for example, surveillance cameras did not help identify the risk or stop the discharge of two pressure cooker bombs that killed three and wounded more than 260. But they did help investigators quickly identify two suspects.

Civil-liberties activists fear that, in the future, camera systems around the country will be connected, increasing the risk for abuse. Speculation persists that such a system could be used to single out a person across states.

But unfounded fears of a distant future is not enough to deny Bluffton the opportunity to try out a system for itself, particularly when neighboring Hilton Head Island has set up more than 100 cameras in its parks, public buildings, boat landings and parking lots.

And with drug and alcohol violations rising steeply in Bluffton during the past year, it's worth seeing if cameras can serve as a crime deterrent.

Town leaders plan to use about $80,000 in accommodations tax revenue (a surcharge on overnight lodging that visitors pay) to pay for the cameras. That meets the criteria on how such funds must be spent. As Mayor Lisa Sulka said, tourists frequent the areas targeted for surveillance.

So even though we suspect George Orwell would cringe at the growing popularity of surveillance cameras (and we along with him), we wish Bluffton luck in using the cameras to make us all safer -- hopefully.

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