2016-02-25 / Front Page

Surveillance Cameras Considered

By Olga Enger

Newport City Council has agreed to explore funding options for a camera surveillance system to be installed in the Broadway, Thames and Washington Square districts.

“This initiative is about giving law enforcement an additional tool to help fight crime,” said Councilor John Florez, who sponsored the resolution, along with Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano and Councilors Marco Camacho and Kathryn Leonard.

Council approved the resolution in a 6-0 vote at their regular council meeting held Wednesday, Feb. 24. Councilor Justin McLaughlin was absent.

Although the resolution was initially drafted to include a “citywide” program, the scope was narrowed to the three business districts through an amendment proposed by Councilor Naomi Neville.

Newport has 11 cameras today, but only one located near the Newport Police station is operable, according to City Manager Joseph Nicholson. That camera has the potential to reach City Hall to the south and Dunkin’ Donuts to the north, according to Newport Police Sgt. Corey Huck.

The existing cameras, which were installed over a decade ago, have not been maintained due to changes in technology and because the camera company went out of business, said Nicholson.

“The bottom line recommendation is that the technology is much more advanced now,” said Nicholson. “It wouldn’t behoove us to retrofit these cameras.”

Nicholson emphasized the council was only approving his research into a potential program and he would return with a recommendation.

“Then, at that point, you may have a robust debate if you want them installed,” Nicholson said.

Critics of cameras often cite privacy concerns and the Fourth Amendment, said Florez.

Newport-based Attorney Kevin Hagan, who taught constitutional law at the Community College of Rhode Island, said while state legislators could enact laws that provide greater privacy protection, the Constitution does not prohibit filming in public spaces.

“People confuse the Fourth Amendment, which concerns searches and seizures, with privacy,” said Hagan. He added public cameras have been used in hundreds of Newport prosecutions without question of their admissibility.

“From a generalized privacy perspective, it’s unfortunate, I think. But that’s not a legal issue,” Hagan said. “There is no constitutional expectation of privacy in what you do or what you say in a public area. generalized privacy concerns are an issue, they need to be taken up with the state legislature. The state can create even greater protections than the Constitution requires.”

The resolution states that cameras

“have helped solve countless crimes” and will provide residents and business owners peace of mind, therefore improving the quality of life for residents.

Newport resident Dougald Parkison was not convinced.

“I was a facilities manager up in Boston. I’ve dealt with cameras before. They are quite expensive. It’s not necessarily the funding that goes into it, it’s the follow-up,” said Parkison. He added his wife had privacy concerns about being filmed.

“There isn’t any expectation of privacy in a public space,” responded Florez.

At least two Broadway business owners support the proposal.

“I would be in favor of it, as long as it’s a relatively low cost to the city,” said Corner Cafe owner Jamey Simoes in an interview before the meeting. “If it brings a feeling of security, then that’s a good thing. We want customers to feel comfortable.”

Jim Blumel, owner of the Tavern on Broadway, agreed.

“My personal feeling is if you have nothing to hide, why would you worry about being photographed on the street?” Blumel said. “If people are going to come here and feel safe, we are going to do better business.”

The proposal for stationary cameras comes at the same time as the city is considering a pilot program for police body cameras.

Councilors passed a resolution in May that directed the administration to research the costs of a pilot program and follow up with a public workshop. Last month Nicholson wrote an eight-page memo endorsing the project. The memo was also included as a communication at the Feb. 24 council meeting.

The police camera program will be voted on by councilors as part of this year’s budget process as a $25,000 line item, Nicholson told Newport This Week. He added the pilot program would help staff work through the details of necessary policies, concerning such issues as usage, storage and video retention.

At the start of this year’s legislative session, Rhode Island Rep. Joseph Almeida, a former Providence police officer, introduced a bill to provide a policy framework.

“The bill is just to provide a framework for communities such as Newport,” Almeida told Newport This Week. “The next step, the difficult step, is to find the money to secure funding.”

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