Wednesday, August 24, 2011

City Council Citizen Safety Squad

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. 

- Benjamin Franklin

Opinion by Samantha Norton

It’s profound statement by one of our greatest founding fathers and one that I took to heart with the passage of the Patriot Act and the rise of the TSA. But as much as I think about that quote in terms of the Federal government, recently I have taken to applying that quote to the recent developments in the City of Columbia.

As has been previously editorialized in CCP (some of it by me) the City of Columbia has a problem with crimes being committed in our “hospitality districts” - namely Five Points. Feeling the need justify their paychecks, the Columbia City Council has developed and passed more and more unnecessary and draconian measures in response to this criminal activity.

Their newest series of plans involve increased CCTV cameras in Five Points and what The State describes as a “Hospitality Squad”. Both will be damaging to our liberty (both socially and economically) as well as our checkbooks (someone will have to pay for new government services and as the debt crisis has showed us the money government spends doesn’t grow on trees.)

Let us first address CCTV. The plan to put in place more security cameras will run the City of Columbia $100,000. The $100,000 appears to be a one time cost for the purchase and installation of the additional cameras and supporting equipment. From what I can gather, this figure does not contemplate the reoccurring expenses the new cameras will incur in the form of the additional staff and training required to utilize them. And those expenses will continue into the foreseeable future.

What do we get with the installation of these ADDITIONAL cameras? (clearly the problem with crime in Five Points is just not enough cameras) The cameras are claimed to be excellent both in preventing crime and in helping to solve crimes‚ crimes the cameras were apparently unable to prevent in the first place. And what do we have to give up in exchange for this increased surveillance of our citizenry, 99% of whom are law abiding citizens?  Our privacy. We give up our ability to conduct our daily lives without someone watching and recording our every move. Yes, we don’t have a right to privacy in a public setting, but why would we ever allow our elected officials to permanently decrease our privacy? Oh that’s right, increased safety.

I hate to break it to the City of Columbia, but as much as I love the city it’s not cutting edge and I don’t think a time will come that it will be. Not a bad thing at all, but what it means is that by the time our City Council gets around to doing something it’s already been setup and tested somewhere else.

In this case it’s England. Since the mid-1990’s municipalities in England have spent BILLIONS installing CCTV cameras in a country about the size of Alabama. In fact England has more than 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras and has had them in place for a while. In London the average person is spied on by CCTV roughly 300 times a day.

So what has this 1984-like surveillance done to prevent and solve crime? Little to nothing. There are plenty of articles discussing the ineffectiveness of their grand system; feel free to look them up for yourself. Perhaps the most damning was a study conducted at the English government’s request by a professor of criminology at the University of Leicester. The professor looked at 14 surveillance systems around England and found that in only one of the 14 areas could a drop in crime levels be linked to CCTV.  Now mind you this is a place that has cornered the market of CCTV and even there it’s useless. How useful is it going to be when manned by people only trained on the system for a few months?

City Council is going to spend hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars to make you feel safe, not actually make you safe and in return you will give up your privacy. Sounds like and awesome trade.

Well while you ponder that lets move onto the “Hospitality Squad”. So there is a crime problem in our bar districts, what should we do?

Step one: a curfew! Check.

Step two: mandatory 2am bar closings! Check.

Step three: more CCTV cameras!

Step four: a “task force” consisting of two units each with a cop, a license inspector, a zoning inspector and and a fire martial which will simultaneously serve Five Points, the Vista, Main Street and the Harbison area. What?!?!?!?!

How is this going to reduce crime? What they propose is a task force that only contains three cops (one of which is a supervisor). Inspectors on the task force teams outnumber police three to one. Clearly, there is something else going on here, but I can only speculate at this time. The quotes from a recent article in The State on the subject are at best suspicious.

So lets go through this again. First, there is this crime problem and second, hotel owners are complaining that cops don’t show good discretion in their establishments when responding to calls and this drives off business. And what they came up with was this “task force”. Now it seems like the two non-supervisory officers in the task force are going to be specially trained to be super discrete when responding to calls from hotels about dead hookers and the like. (This clues me into the fact that the city considers the average police officer too dumb to accomplish the task, even with special training in how to not be a loud asshole.)

What it comes down to is that the city will be paying two cops who are dedicated to maintaining the illusion of safety for hotel guests regardless of whether they are or not. How is this going to protect me when I am walking back to my car after having a late night beer with a friend in Five Points? How are these two cops going to protect me as well as protect the patrons of Main Street, the Vista and Harbison? Are they going to be manufactured by Omni Consumer Products? How will two licensing inspectors or a fire inspector protect me from being mugged? I mean there are literally thousands of questions I could ask that have no sufficient answer. Another good one is why are two additional fire inspectors needed to exclusively monitor buildings in bar districts?

But, the huge question that keeps rattling around in my brain is “Why have certain business groups supported this?” What benefit are two cops and a bunch of inspectors going to add that ultimately increases their profits? Businesses exist to make money; if they are supporting this laughable task force then somehow it must support their monitory interests. I can’t imagine the task force will provide enough of a presence to make their customers happier or feel safer thereby increasing profits. The only thing that jumps up at me is that a group of business who know they are up to code want to drum out competition that isn’t up to code. It’s the only logical reason for them to support this task force or even for this task force to be created. I am curious to see what transpires over the coming months.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but the way to stop this crime problem is to get more warm bodies on the streets in the places crime is occurring when crime is occurring. In reality they don’t have to even be police officers. Some cities have unarmed but uniformed city employees who provide general assistance to citizens in the area they patrol be it answering questions about parking or the location of local businesses to radioing to police when they see trouble. How many of these people would be required to effectively aid the police and reduce crime in the bar districts? My guess would be five to ten. I am pretty sure that could be accomplished for less than the almost $800,000 in “safety” programs the city is proposing (the task force will run $671,000).

In essence the Columbia City Council has repeatedly been asking us to give up bits of our liberty to purchase what they claim will be increased safety. If we allow them to continue we deserve what we get.  

Make sure our city coucil

members are safe!

  Take surveillance video in front of their homes and email to for a chance to win $100.


Belinda Gergel

1915 Pendleton Street


Sam Davis

950 Rosedale Arch


Tameika Isaac Devine

3100 Lake Wood Ave


Brian Newman

2144 Walter Salaman Way


Leona Plaugh

73 Somerton Place


Daniel Rickenmann

4203 Woodlegh Road


Please stay off private property and do not harass your public servants.  The best 60 second safety video in front of a council member’s home will win $100. 

The publisher will select one winner on October 14, and the prize will be awarded within two weeks if the winning contestant provides name, address and payment information. All video formats are accepted and entries should be emailed to:

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