Editorial: Rules needed for cameras in parks
Keeping an eye on Oahu parks — which have become more frequent tourist stops as well as at-risk locales for criminal activity — is a defensible idea, even a good one.
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Keeping an eye on Oahu parks — which have become more frequent tourist stops as well as at-risk locales for criminal activity — is a defensible idea, even a good one. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be carried out with little public discussion and rulemaking.
The lack of public discussion drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii about the city’s plans to install 192 cameras at 13 public parks around the island by the start of 2020. And it’s well-founded. Fortunately, the city still has time to open the issue to residents who certainly weren’t expecting this in their neighborhoods.
This will be an expansion of the surveillance cameras program the city rolled out in Waikiki in February. That launch was not preceded by public meetings, either, although it did develop out of ideas raised during a crime summit held in 2017.
That event, the Visitor Public Safety Conference, was sponsored by the Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association in the wake of two high-profile Waikiki incidents.
These cases — the murder of Marine Sgt. William H. Brown and the beating of a 21-year-old soldier, in which a 14-year-old boy was charged — topped a list of three murders, 24 sex crimes, 339 assaults, 1,787 thefts and other offenses in Waikiki from that year.
The notion of cameras as deterrents to criminal activity gained support from Waikiki businesses and some community leaders — not a surprising reaction, given the concern about high crime rates and negative publicity in Hawaii’s pre-eminent tourism district.
Subsequently other beach parks known as problem areas were equipped with cameras: Aala, Ala Moana, Sandy Beach, Kaiaka Bay and Waialae. The persistence of homeless camps at many of the parks is one reason for the mounting concern.
But that shouldn’t have immediately prompted the quiet expansion to a less selective list of parks.
Without a doubt, many tourists are venturing out on circle-island routes that take them to parks once used primarily by local residents. Social media has provided the information that has powered this visitor adventurism, tipping them off to less-crowded destinations.
One is Oneula Beach Park in Ewa Beach, the site of a fair amount of vandalism on restrooms and a recent stabbing incident.
It will get a share of the cameras, along with other select parks: Foster Botanical Garden, Kuhio Beach Park, Ala Moana Regional Park, Kapiolani Regional Park, Hauula Beach Park, Waimanalo Bay Beach Park, Makapuu Beach Park, Makaha Beach Park, Kalama Beach Park, Patsy T. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park and Waipio Soccer.
The city and the Hawaii Tourism Authority are spending nearly $250,000 on the new cameras. This could be a prudent investment, but the public needs some assurances about how the cameras and the video data may be used.
Questions abound. What is the capacity of the cameras to be remotely operated? Can the zoom or focal point be changed, or are they fixed? What are the limitations on where they may be installed — in or out of comfort stations, for instance?
Will the video record be saved, and if so, for how long? How will the record be used? Will it be treated like a public record that can be requisitioned?
It is true that in a public space there is less expectation of privacy, but that does not equate with free rein for government surveillance. There is potential for abuse inherent in any system in which the government has custody of data, visual or otherwise.
Surveillance cameras represent one concession to security concerns, in an age of increasing crime, that the public may be willing to make. They should be less willing to do so, however, without knowing what the ground rules are.