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Council Approves Contract for Surveillance Cameras

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

February 17 -- Nearly six months after local police warned that Santa Monica could be a target for terrorists, City Council members Tuesday unanimously approved a plan to install 123 video cameras in public places.

The City-funded $2 million installation and maintenance of a police-monitored video surveillance system in and around the poplar Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Pier will be used to guard against terrorist activities, as well as petty and serious crime, according to police.

Though no dissenting vote was cast, Council members butted heads over who should be allowed to view the video information gathered on people shopping around Downtown and taking a stroll on the pier.

"I completely trust the chief and the department,” said Council member Kevin McKeown. “However, I don't have as much trust in other branches of government.

"What we're talking about doing with this camera system is creating a 90-day retained library of the images of private people living their private lives in public spaces, images that could be tracked to show where you went and when and with whom,” he said.

Those images would include various free speech activities that happen with frequency on the pier and Promenade, McKeown said.

"I have great concern how those images would be used if subpoenaed or otherwise attached by other branches of government," he said, pointing the recent example of the internet giant, Yahoo!, turning over search engine results to the federal government.

An amendment was passed asking staff to examine what options are available to City officials if they were ordered to turn over such information. However, others on the council said state and federal authorities should have more leeway to look at such information.

"It could be also that somebody, some other level of government, is looking for terrorism-related information data which may be something that they need to pursue," said Council member Pam O'Connor.

"The whole point of this is for that kind of security and to preempt anything from happening,” O’Connor said. “There are reasons why other governmental agencies are out there doing work every day for all of us to protect us."

Public notices will be on display in areas that are being viewed, and police have already outlined some policies that will dictate how the information will be stored and used, and who will monitor the program and the technical capabilities of the cameras (see story).

Though since cleared by the FBI of any wrongdoing, three men of Middle Eastern decent were seen videotaping the pier last August in a "suspicious manner," which led Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. to ask the City to fund better security measures. (see story)

While the contract approving the cameras was approved Tuesday, how they will be used may be a fight brewing for future council meetings.

"I hope we won't get bogged down on what the policy says now because that's not before us," said Council member Ken Genser.

"This is really the contract about the cameras,” he said, “and there'll be plenty of time for the other debate later."

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