Initial reaction to the city’s just-announced plan to install surveillance cameras at 88 more sites across Columbia is enthusiastic.
“They’re very welcome, very welcome,” said Brenda Oliver, president of the neighborhood organization in the Pinehurst community, where shootings within the past three weeks have left two men dead.
“The more safeguards that we can get, the better,” Oliver said Wednesday upon learning that at least two of the new camera sites are to be at entrances to the 200-home neighborhood off Two Notch Road between Forest Drive and Covenant Road. “Most of the responsible citizens in our community want some help.”
No one, she said, has raised questions that government surveillance could restrict civil liberties.
Police Chief Skip Holbrook said the new locations are based largely on the number of reported crimes and calls for police assistance, which are then displayed on maps.
A review of the list Holbrook released shows that cameras are going to the northwest edges of town from Harbison Boulevard, Bower Parkway and Broad River Road through city neighborhoods to the northeast stretches of Columbia.
Some locations are not being disclosed because they are for covert operations. The city already has cameras in 70 sites, mostly in entertainment districts at along major thoroughfares, the chief said. Very few are monitored 24-7. Police review footage to identify problems and potential suspects.
Oliver’s reaction echoed from leaders in north Columbia to downtown’s financial district and beyond.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” said Martha Fowler, who owns a building on the 1600 block of Main Street, which is within the 36-block financial district that straddles Main Street.
Fowler said the city’s next round of camera locations will include surveillance at downtown drop-off sites for county jail and state prison inmates. Drop-off locations along Sumter, Laurel and Blanding streets have been sore points with Columbia politicians and local property owners alike.
The 36-block financial district already has roughly 100 cameras, said Matt Kennell, director of City Center Partnership, which advocates for businesses in the district.
Though he’s satisfied with the number of cameras, including the new ones, Kennell voiced a common sentiment.
“There’s probably never enough,” he said. “You always have enough cameras until something happens in an area where there is no camera.
“It’s like putting mulch on the ground,” Kennell said. “It’s never enough.”
Fowler and Kennell both say the new cameras are especially welcome as Main Street prepares this month for the arrival of more than 800 students at The Hub, a high-rise that has been converted from office to residential space.
“We’ve got these kids coming in there at The Hub,” Fowler said, “I just don’t want them to fall victim ... and I don’t want Main Street going through what Five Points did.”
In recent years, the Five Points entertainment district that’s popular with University of South Carolina and other college students has been plagued by periodic outbreaks of shootings, beatings and other violent crime.
Tommy Burkett, a longtime Eau Claire resident, businessman and founding member of North Columbia Business Association, said north Columbia already has about 130 cameras.
“Since we installed those cameras, it has solved many, many crimes,” Burkett said.
The appetite for more security remains strong.
“We couldn’t get all the money we needed,” Burkett said of previous camera requests. “The city had the money, but I couldn’t get the rest from the patrons.” He is referring to the city’s dollar-for-dollar match program for purchase, installation and maintenance of four-camera boxes that dot north Main Street from Sunset Drive to Columbia College. The private school with mostly women students has 27 camera locations, Burkett said.
North Columbians want even more cameras for city parks and for major entrances into their neighborhoods, Burkett said.
Further, he would like the city to begin paying the monthly cost of operating the cameras.
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said the reaction she has heard to the new camera locations is positive.
She’s particularly pleased that Holbrook is choosing sites based on crime data.
“It’s not based on the neighborhood that votes the most or the neighborhood with the highest property values,” Devine said.
Mayor Steve Benjamin called the camera program “an invaluable piece of our public safety infrastructure.”
For residents such as Oliver, who feel uneasy about safety in their neighborhoods, finally getting cameras might be the beginning of a turnaround.
Pinehurst neighborhood has become a largely rental property community and has seen a resurgence of drugs and crime, Oliver said. She calls the two deadly shootings “gunfights.”
If crime in Pinehurst subsides as it did after a federal crackdown a few years ago, “It’s a key to revitalization,” Oliver said. “We tried to do it alone. But it’s hard. We’ll be lobbying for more (cameras).”
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