The Santa Monica City Council has hired Federal Network Services Incorporated to install 123 security cameras on the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade.
Councilmembers agreed to a $1.31 million contract with the firm Tuesday, February 14th. The cameras will cost $1.2 million and system maintenance is $110,000.
Federal Network and another vendor have security camera systems installed on the Pier and the Promenade for a test phase.
City officials determined that Federal Network’s security system is the best for the city.
The security system is connected to the City of Santa Monica’s computer network and it aids the Santa Monica Police Department in detecting and investigating suspicious criminal activity, including acts of terrorism.
“We have a lot of confidence in the pre-planning and studies done to place the cameras in areas where we think they will provide the most security and public safety,” said Santa Monica Police Chief James Butts.
Cameras will be installed on, under, and around the Pier, along the Promenade, and in the alleys east and west of the Promenade.
In August last year, the Santa Monica Police Department approached city officials about installing cameras in the midst of mounting homeland security concerns.
Last year in July, a man photographed three men who looked like they were from the Middle East videotaping structural portions and pilings of the Pier.
He held on to the photographs for two weeks and turned them over to Santa Monica Police immediately after buses and subway trains were bombed in London, England.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) interviewed the three men and released them.
A task force made up of staff members from various city departments was convened and the recommendation for a camera system was made in consultation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Some members of the City Council, Pier Restoration Corporation, and the Bayside District Corporation expressed misgivings about video surveillance of citizens in public places.
Pier Restoration is the city agency that manages the Pier.
Bayside is the city agency that manages the Promenade and other downtown Santa Monica locations.
Video from the cameras will be digitally stored on equipment in the Public Safety Facility, which houses the Santa Monica Police Department.
Access to the system is limited to authorized police department and city staff.
“From all the groundwork we have done over an extended period of time, all the entities involved such as Bayside and the Pier Restoration Corporation have some reservations but signed off on the concept,” Butts said.
Councilman Ken Genser, who is the City Council liaison to Pier Restoration and Bayside, said the two agencies were briefed on the city’s intent to install cameras and have not taken a formal position on a specific proposal.
“This is not a simple decision because the idea of video surveillance of public areas raises concerns for a number of people, myself included,” Genser said. “I think that some video surveillance is warranted and most likely appropriate — I say most likely, provided that safeguards are in place.”
Genser said those safeguards must be implemented in policy format that includes provisions on how the images will be collected and maintained, who would have access to them, and how long they would be kept on file.
Genser’s suggestions raised eyebrows among city staff such as Butts, city attorney Marsha Moutrie, and city manager Lamont Ewell.
“I don’t want a policy directed by City Council without them having an understanding of security measures that could be breached,” Ewell said. “I am not opposed to this approach, but I would suggest that the police department always have the right to come back to council with recommendations for change based on security needs and information the police may have.”
Butts said city staff might end up writing a policy that hinders the police department in the event of a terrorist attack.
“The only concern I would raise about the council making policies in areas of public safety and anti-terrorism is the compromised ability of the police department to move rapidly to do something different in an emergency,” Butts said.
Moutrie said the Santa Monica city charter outlines the types of powers given to the city manager’s office, which oversees the police department.
“The city manager has various emergency powers that are customarily invoked for things like purchasing and earthquakes,” Moutrie said.
“I would strongly recommend a policy that includes an emergency exception so that the police can protect the public without convening a council meeting,” she said.
Ewell said he and his staff would discuss the policy at length with Moutrie and Butts before it is written and brought to City Council for approval.
“The language will fit everyone’s needs,” Ewell said.
Councilmembers voted six to zero to direct staff to write a policy addressing the issues of safeguards that Genser highlighted.
The City Council also directed staff to determine whether data collected on the video cameras can be used by state and federal agencies and options for restricting access to Santa Monica police and city officials only.
“I trust the city manager and the police department to implement an effective camera system and to manage and protect the data that is collected in a highly responsible way,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown.
“I don’t trust other branches of government and I have real concerns about creating a library of visual images of private citizens going about their private lives in public places.
“This is going to be an ongoing record of who went where and when and with whom that could somehow be acquired by another branch of government,” he said.
Recently, Santa Monica-based Internet search engine Yahoo! was forced under pressure by the federal government to hand over all records of searches for child pornography sites and child pornography-related terms.
“What if we found ourselves in the type of situation where the federal government demands a record of who has been on the Promenade and Pier, including the free speech activists and political activists who are often there?” McKeown asked. “We would be powerless to put up a resistance unless we have a policy.”
McKeown is concerned about the right of privacy because the federal government is currently under the impression that a subpoena for records or a judicial review is unnecessary.
Councilwoman Pam O’Connor warned the City Council not to have an inferiority complex.
“The whole point of doing this camera system is to have vigilance and I do not want other agencies to think we are a barrier,” O’Connor said. “It could be that state and federal agencies are looking for terrorism-related information and they know of something that needs to be pursued.”
She and Councilman Richard Bloom would support an appropriate legal request for documents by other agencies if the request were made through appropriate legal channels.
Bloom said that anti-terrorism laws in the U.S. and the Patriot Act are consistently changing and the City of Santa Monica has ways of protecting the rights of its citizens.
The City Council did not agree with some provisions of the Patriot Act and passed a resolution that addressed concerns about federal government seizure of records from Santa Monica’s public library system.
Genser said the City Council would probably not disobey a court order if one were obtained by another government agency.