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McDONALD: Surveillance cameras in Kelowna? Show us why we need the eye in the sky.

February 16, 2018 - 2:00 PM

 


OPINION


As risk and safety manager for the City of Kelowna, Lance Kayfish has the thorny yet delicate task of looking ahead at all that possibly could go wrong with civic operations and then thinking of ways to either avoid or prevent those potential problems from becoming real.

With several hundred closed circuit security cameras pointed at various things and their potential for good and evil — public safety versus invasion of privacy — the surveillance camera file falls squarely in his lap.

Kelowna has been running (and partially monitoring) street cameras for years but Kayfish has been more recently working on a program to expand the number of cameras and introduce live monitoring by security contractors.

He has made no secret of the plan which was first brought before Kelowna city council in late 2015, noting at the time that people don’t seem bothered much by security cameras anymore, given how the rise of the smartphone has put a video camera in everybody’s pocket.

Kayfish says the whole surveillance program has been developed using guidelines supplied by B.C.’s Office of Information and Privacy Protection, so he was as surprised as anyone when acting privacy commissioner Drew McArthur announced publicly that Kelowna is over-reaching.

If it were only public opinion guiding his actions — he says a lack of complaints show the majority see nothing wrong with their use — Kayfish would have nothing to worry about but he must also consider the privacy commissioner and his interpretation of the Freedom of Information Protection of Privacy Act. The commissioner has made no secret of his disdain for the use of CCTV in public spaces and how useless they are in improving public safety.

Regardless of what you think of CCTVs and their potential as a public safety tool, the act has a lot to say about their use and misuse, (although it would be a mistake to say the legislation is tilted towards more privacy).

On the contrary, the act justifies video surveillance anywhere it will support a clearly identified program with a stated objective such as reducing illegal dumping at the Glenmore landfill or vandalism at the city works yards which is how Kayfish feels he can rationalize the majority of the security cameras.

Indeed, the privacy commissioner isn’t worried about a camera pointed at the landfill gate at 2 a.m. where the only people who might actually be seen are bored security patrols or someone who is genuinely up to no good.

The city's rationale gets thinner, though, the more public the space becomes.

Kelowna’s three downtown parkades, which share 208 cameras between them, are supposedly a hotspot for car theft and vandalism and the cameras can likely be justified on contractual grounds — you have probably paid to park there and expect a measure of security for your car.

Even pointing security cameras at Kelowna’s skateboard parks can seem a reasonable response to the on-going problem of graffiti, which as Kayfish explains, has forced the city to hire a full-time anti-graffiti employee.

Same too, with the washrooms in the city’s major parks which again Kayfish paints as hotbeds of petty crime, drug use and vandalism. The city must provide them, so can justify protecting the people who use them.

Where that justification is most threadbare is for the cameras pointed down Leon and Lawrence Avenues, which endure the nightly bar flush and the daytime use of their sidewalks by the homeless.

Kayfish’s position is that security cameras can also be used to help enforce they city’s bylaws which he argues constitutes a program with a clear objective.

It doesn’t take Joseph Heller to see the Catch-22 this philosophy can produce and where it slips over the line from increased personal security to crowd control and invasion of privacy.

Kelowna recently enacted a bylaw banning anyone from blocking sidewalks, evidence of which can be clearly seen from the Leon Street camera.

It’s the city’s position that they can send officers to enforce that bylaw and then further justify their use as a safety measure for the bylaw officers, who must go ticket or otherwise move along a crowd of hostile homeless people.

Complicating all this for Kayfish is the demand by the privacy commissioner for data to back up the program — if the aim is to reduce graffiti, show how it’s been accomplished. If bylaw officer safety is the goal, then show how assaults on them have been reduced.

Could all of this put Kelowna on a collision course with the provincial privacy commissioner? Not if Kayfish can help it although he says he has the statistics that can show their efficacy.

Kayfish says plans were already in place for a system-wide review this spring of each camera, its placement and the times it is operational and the commissioner’s concerns will be considered during that process.

I’ve been covering this story since 2015 and have yet to see data that backs any of this — a reduction in graffiti, assaults on bylaw officers or even something more quantifiable as a reduction in break-ins in the Chapman Parkade which has been for years covered with security cameras.

Hovering above all this is Kelowna city council, which approved the introduction of live surveillance monitoring last fall.

This is a council that has many times declared its dedication to making evidence-based decisions. If the city has statistical evidence to justify security cameras in public places, forget the privacy commissioner, it’s time to lay it out for the rest of us to see.

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca.


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