Bill Brown is one paranoid dude. And now, thanks to his tour of downtown surveillance cameras, so am I.
The two-hour walk-and-talk that took us all of 1 1/2 blocks -- beginning in front of Nada at Sixth and Walnut streets, walking south to Fifth Street and ending in front of the Tyler Davidson Fountain -- involved discussion of about a dozen security cameras of varying age, capabilities and purpose. Put together, they could have cataloged our entire movement during that time. Who cares, right?
Well, sure, I'm a law-abiding white guy who dresses pretty normally -- even sometimes dawning a tie and sport jacket -- with short hair. I smile when I meet strangers on the street.
But in my many years coming downtown -- since I was a teenager (back when downtown had lots to do for all age groups) -- and the past five years working and walking all over downtown, I've noticed just a handful of these cameras that now seem to be everywhere. Some are in tinted half-globes and dangle like fruit from poles. Others are less conspicuous. Many can move to track your motion. Brown's obsession with cameras might be a little over the top for some. But as he gave out a map of downtown's current 222 cameras to the 18 people who showed up for this tour, he said the situation isn't all bad. Of course, it's not all good either.
Those 222 cameras represent a 58 percent increase in just two years. There are now 132 private cameras, 47 state or federal government cameras, 22 elevated cameras, 11 Metro bus cameras and 10 city-operated cameras in downtown Cincinnati, according to Brown's research.
He likes to poke fun at the cameras through a group he calls the Surveillance Camera Players, actors who find an active camera, one that's being continually monitored by a live person, and then do a little silent-movie type play for the watcher. In fact, he says, Fountain Square -- which apparently has four working cameras on the square itself -- is the perfect stage.
"This place even looks like a stage," Brown says, referring to the beautiful fountain toward the north end of the square and the complement of newly installed light poles equipped with Hollywood-style movie spotlights. He has a point.
Is all this a big deal? My gut instinct is no, though Brown has a different way of looking at the issue.
As our tour passed the Potter Stewart federal courthouse, an armed police officer came out and stood on the periphery of our group and seemed to listen to what was being said. That was before I noticed what appeared to be two security cameras on the Skywalk walkway over Walnut Street and asked Brown if I could borrow the binoculars he hadn't yet taken out of his messenger bag. When he hesitated, I looked over and saw the officer who hadn't been there moments before.
We weren't doing anything wrong, yet I felt like a criminal. What if instead of binoculars -- a clearly suspicious item in today's world -- Brown had handed out turbans to all of us? If we had placed them on our heads, my feeling would is we would have been asked to leave the public sidewalk.
But where is the balance?
Kabaka Oba, the outspoken activist who was gunned down in the waning moments of an afternoon City Council meeting in front of City Hall on April 12, 2006, was killed by Howard Beatty, a West End neighbor with whom he'd exchanged insults and worse. On that afternoon when shots were heard in council chambers, there were witnesses outside who saw something happen and gave a description of a fleeing vehicle.
A video camera perched atop a nearby building, meant to watch a parking lot near City Hall, actually caught the crime taking place. The videotape was used to convict Beatty of manslaughter, sending him to prison for 13 years, the maximum allowed by law for the charges he faced.
Brown contends, and I agree, that unlabeled cameras do little to deter crime. At best, cameras might happen to catch crimes after they occur.
If you like your privacy, it looks like it won't be long before no one has any. Smile, someone's watching.
(Written by Joe Wessels and published in the 30 April 2008 issue of CityBeat.)
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