Editorial: Mayor's surveillance revisions have merit

  • Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz has proposed sensible revisions to the ordinance restricting municipal use of surveillance equipment that we urge the City Council to adopt. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Mayor David J. Narkewicz has proposed sensible revisions to the ordinance restricting municipal use of surveillance equipment that are consistent with the opposition expressed by the City Council.

We urge the council to adopt the language proposed by Narkewicz in his Dec. 18 message vetoing the ordinance approved Dec. 7. In particular, we support the mayor’s proposal to extend the restrictions on surveillance equipment from downtown to any property owned, leased or controlled by the city throughout Northampton.

We agree with Narkewicz that if the City Council approves his changes to the ordinance, it would meet “the same policy objective while enjoying the unified support of this Mayor, City Council and Police Chief (Jody) Kasper and the Northampton Police Department.”

That is a desirable outcome to the four-month-old controversy that has elicited strong reactions from both sides. A majority of city councilors and residents who have spoken publicly oppose adding more municipal surveillance equipment — including video cameras, license plate readers and facial recognition systems — for a variety of reasons, including their potential chilling effect and a belief that they provide few, if any, benefits.

According to Narkewicz, he and Kasper met with City Council leaders June 27 to discuss the chief’s research about adding more surveillance cameras downtown to improve public safety. The mayor said he told city councilors then that no equipment would be bought unless the council approved the financial request — estimated by Kasper at between $70,000 and $100,000.

The chief also pledged to seek public reaction, which she did at a forum Sept. 13 attended by about 100 people. Most who spoke expressed concerns centering on the cameras’ unwarranted intrusion on privacy when there is little evidence that they are effective either in deterring or solving crimes. Some people also suggested that the money would be better spent by beefing up community policing with more officers.

The City Council then adopted a nonbinding resolution expressing its disapproval of public surveillance, and proposed a binding ordinance restricting use of the equipment. The council last month approved 7-2 the measure prohibiting fixed surveillance equipment that is installed for more than a single day in the central business district on property owned or controlled by the city. It has exceptions covering technology that monitors parking areas, cameras on the police station on Center Street, criminal investigations with a specific time limit, and emergencies.

For only the third time in his first six years as mayor, Narkewicz used his veto power to reject the ordinance. He said it is unnecessary because no surveillance equipment could be installed without its financing being approved by the City Council as part of a capital improvement request.

Narkewicz also pointed to an inconsistency in language between the title of the ordinance which refers to “establishing restrictions” and the term “prohibition” used in the ordinance itself.

Finally, Narkewicz asserted that the restriction should be extended to the entire city to answer the concern of some opponents that surveillance equipment is inconsistent with Northampton’s sanctuary city status. “My sanctuary city order covers our entire city … as does presumably the City Council’s desire for an open and democratic society,” the mayor wrote in his veto message to the council.

Another change proposed by Narkewicz would require the City Council to schedule a public hearing on any requests it receives for approving the installation of surveillance equipment.

Narkewicz contends that his proposed revisions “would provide the desired additional check on a potential future rogue mayor or police chief attempting to purchase and install fixed cameras without seeking City Council approval … My revisions would enact a clear restriction that requires City Council approval to overcome while also establishing a process whereby surveillance technology could be considered on a case-by-case basis. This approach allows for the possibility that those who oppose cameras at this moment in time may in the near or distant future find cause to support a particular camera in a particular location for reasons that cannot be foreseen now.”

That is a reasonably flexible approach that respects the strong opposition evident now to increased municipal use of surveillance equipment.