Butte-Silver Bow is moving forward with installing surveillance cameras at some park locations in hopes of curbing vandalism. Officials say if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have no worries.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana says the move, like similar ones in Helena and Missoula, is yet another chip out of privacy rights that deserves public attention and push back.
“It’s OK for us to want to go about our business in public areas,” said Niki Zupanic, public policy director at ACLU Montana. “We live here in Montana to have wide-open spaces where you aren’t being crowded by people or watched all the time.”
County officials say spying is not their intention and public feedback has been mostly positive.
The cameras will snap photos when they detect motion, but Parks and Recreation Coordinator E. Jay Ellington said the pictures will only be reviewed if vandalism or other crimes have occurred.
“We are looking to stop damage to our system, we are not out there to make sure every picture is viewed,” Ellington said. “It’s a public, open space. We understand that.
“They (cameras) are there for a particular purpose, which is to catch people who are abusing the system, not the ones who are using the system.”
Chief Executive Matt Vincent announced a move to install the cameras last month after vandals spray-painted graffiti at the city’s newest recreation area, Foreman Park near the Mountain Con Mine yard. It was the latest act in an ugly, costly problem.
Getting to the root of that, Vincent said this week, will entail more outreach, education and finding better ways for youth to spend time.
But in the mean time, he said, the cameras are a relatively inexpensive and justified step to take. The cameras cost about $200 each and eight are being purchased and installed within the current budget, he said.
“We’ve had a problem that has been pretty ongoing as far as destruction,” Vincent said. “It’s just unfortunate. They always happen to target the new amenities.”
Two years ago, Helena officials authorized cameras in parks and garages to help authorities catch and prosecute people for vandalism and theft.
Helena Police Capt. Corey Livesay said one camera was placed at the Veterans’ Memorial, where property had been destroyed by skateboarding and vandalism. There has only been one minor incident since the camera went up, he said.
That incident was too quick and short-lived to get a decent photo of the perpetrator, Livesay said, but the camera has proven a great deterrence.
He said when people enter the area, they are notified by a recording that a camera is present. Covert cameras are sometimes placed in Helena parking garages, he said, but in all cases only law enforcement reviews pictures or footage.
“Our whole goal is for prevention,” Livesay said.
Missoula also has been using cameras, and last September, police used them on a pedestrian bridge to catch a vandal.
The ACLU’s Zupanic said if cities do use surveillance cameras, they should include safeguards to lessen privacy encroachments.
They should include use of still pictures instead of video, putting a short time limit on how long photos are kept unless there is an ongoing investigation, and posting signs about the cameras in areas they are used, she said.
Vincent said the cameras in Butte and Silver Bow County will only take photos and signs will be posted where they are used.
He said feedback has been mostly positive. In an unscientific poll by The Standard asking readers if they supported cameras in Butte-Silver Bow parks as a way to deter vandalism, 446 responses said yes and 128 said no.
But Zupanic said some people feel use of the cameras is creepy.
“Even if people aren’t doing anything wrong and not breaking any law or not even necessarily doing something embarrassing, you act a little different if you think they are taking your picture every 10 seconds,” she said.
— Reporter Mike Smith may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 496-5511.