A proposal to install 54 security cameras in downtown Hermosa Beach created a lively discussion between city council members at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
The original proposal was made public on the Nov. 12 City Council’s consent calendar and suggested that the council authorize City Manager Tom Bakaly to sign an addendum to the city’s current contract with Stanley Security to install a larger camera system downtown. The proposal asked for $43,862 from the Asset Forfeiture Fund and $16,807 from the general fund to complete the project. The Stanley Security project would have included upgrades to two cameras which are currently located on the Lifeguard Headquarters as well as the 1100 block of The Strand. The original plan included cameras in downtown parking structures as well as the Plaza area. Additionally, the Beach House Inn would pay $10,124 for three cameras to be installed in their hotel parking area.
Former Councilmember Howard Fishman requested that the item be removed from the consent calendar for a more thorough discussion after the new council was installed later in the month.
However, when the item was revisited on Jan. 14, the original plan was scrapped and replaced with a much larger and more expensive project by a new company, Security Lines US.
“Cameras are now commonplace in virtually all public venues,” said Hermosa Beach Police Chief Sharon Papa. “They have a positive effect on increasing the public’s sense of safety; however, there is no empirical data that cameras reduce crime in all cases, and quite candidly that’s true. However, they have proven time and time again to be instrumental in identifying and successfully prosecuting cases. The primary benefit to the city of Hermosa Beach will be in crowd and emergency management control, as well as situational awareness to spot problems early on and to more efficiently deploy resources before things get out of hand.”
The new proposal would cost $120,060 and would place 54 cameras in approximately 13 different pod systems across the Pier Plaza section as well as in parking structures and the near 13th Street and Hermosa Avenue.
Hermosa Beach Resident J.D. Wilcox expressed concern about the extent of the cameras, especially citing the legal and moral issues of a government agency monitoring the everyday activities of residents and visitors.
“The former council delayed a vote, and now that we see the real report… it’s from a completely different company with a different contract,” said Wilcox, adding that the new proposal also includes a license plate scanner. “It seems the old project fell into a hole somewhere. In car sales terms, they call that a ‘bait and switch.’”
He also cited the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Recently, the parameters of the Fourth Amendment have been debated in connection with cell phone tracking and listening devices. Wilcox said he was concerned about the amount of leverage the police department could potentially wield with knowledge of the seemingly day-to-day activities of citizens.
“Privacy concerns voiced by some members of the public simply are not valid in public gathering places,” Papa said. “There will be signage posted near the entrance of packing facilities and the Plaza advising people that video surveillance is occurring, providing them an option to go elsewhere if they truly object.”
“I’m of the belief that in a public setting there is no right to privacy,” Councilwoman Carolyn Petty said. “Most people have cell phones with a recording device, and many establishments on Pier Plaza currently have recording devices. It’s all around us… if we can use technology as a force multiplier, then that makes sense to me.”
Resident George Schmeltzer also expressed concerns about potential privacy issues.
“I can see it both ways,” Schmeltzer said. “I see the benefits and some of the downsides… My concerns are not with the cameras, per ce. I think it could be a benefit to the community. My concern is with the controlling of information that’s collected. It’s easy to collect and easy to distribute, and you will unfortunately collect information on things that you shouldn’t have information about. Do you file these away or do they become the source of jokes where they get passed back and forth and somebody extracts an image and it gets passed to somebody else. I think it can be controlled, but we gotta ask the Chief to focus on access and…a record of who accessed it and where it’s stored, and how long it’s stored…We [also] have to have a first class system if we have one at all. There’s no benefit to a second class system that produces grainy images that turn out to not be useful in the final report.”
Councilmember Nannette Barragan said that she was initially unsure of putting cameras on the plaza.
“I too was concerned about some of the issues that were raised today about why people are really pushing that we not do this,” Barragan said. “But I started talking to residents and asked for feedback and the overwhelming response was that [most people] are generally in favor of this.”
Barragan, a lawyer, said she researched the issue and determined that there are no constitutional limits on cameras in public places.
“What’s done in the public is there for the world to see,” said Barragan.
Barragan did express concern about the number of cameras and the potentially low quality of video. She suggested investigating other camera system options.
“If we’re going to do this, we have to do it right,” she said.
Councilmember Hany Fangary said that as much as we like to think Hermosa Beach is safe, the city has room for improvement.
“And if cameras can get us there, while putting in some guidelines and protocols to address some of the issues today, I think it’s the way I’d like us to be going,” said Fangary. “At the strategic planning session all five members of the council voted that public safety was number one, and those cameras could enhance public safety.”
He also said that he would like a more thorough report before agreeing to a contract.
“I think we need the cameras and they’ll help us in public safety and help the police manage their time better,” said Fangary. “I’d like to come back with a plan that improves public safety while limiting the invasion of privacy concerns.”
Michael DiVirgilio was the only council member to vocally oppose the use of cameras in the downtown area.
“I voted for public safety being our top priority,” said DiVirgilio. “But I’m going to oppose this because I do lean towards the philosophical draw to privacy… I’m not convinced this is the thing we need next to address safety. I heard the benefit is related to prosecution, but I didn’t know we had a problem with our prosecution…I think there’s different ways to use and manage cameras to handle an event. We focus on the Plaza, but cameras make no difference to property thefts in the rest of the town… I think there’s an issue with enforcement, and I’d like to hear is what are we going to do to improve and strengthen enforcement. That’s what’s going to handle crime I believe.”
Papa told the council that policy regarding cameras has not been fully investigated yet, because the department first wanted to know if the council would approve the contract.
“If philosophically you’re okay with going forward with the camera project, I’m okay with coming back with a whole package and policy with checks and balances if that makes everybody more comfortable,” said Papa.
“From what I’m hearing is if the cameras get approved, a policy will be made,” said councilman Peter Tucker. “Before they’re deployed, I’m going to assume this plan will be approved by this governing body.”
In a 4 to 1 decision, with DiVirgilio as the lone dissenting vote, the council voted to support the use of cameras, along with a policy review prior to the implementation of the equipment. ER