Madison surveillance plan raises questions about privacy

Police plan raises no constitutional issues but policy ones abound, professor says

Madison Police Chief Noble Wray’s plan to assess how many additional surveillance cameras to add downtown and when to monitor them raised some concerns — but no constitutional challenges — from the civil liberties community Tuesday.

Police are looking at cameras to quell crime in places such as the 600 block of University Avenue, which has been the site of a handful of high-profile summer crimes.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has asked Wray to define how the cameras would be used, said Stacy Harbaugh, a spokeswoman.

“Unfortunately, cameras aren’t going to go away,” she said. “Once cameras get installed, they’re very hard to take out. So it’s really important that the rules are clear.”

There are already 34 cameras downtown, Harbaugh said. They include at least five visible ones high atop the 600 block of University.

Police credited those cameras with the arrests in connection with a triple shooting in May.

“We have used them,” Wray said. “In fact, as many people are aware, they have been very helpful in solving a number of crimes that have occurred.”

Adding cameras atop public sidewalks doesn’t raise any constitutional issues but does raise policy ones, said Donald Downs, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in civil liberties law.

“If you’re walking in a public area, you expose yourself to public view,” he said. “But there are policy questions (for residents) — do we want a state that’s always watching us?”

Reactions were mixed to the police plan from those walking along University Avenue.

“It just seems odd,” said Michael Brown, a UW graduate student, as he waited for his bus. “It seems to violate what a Madison spirit is, or what a Madison attitude is about the kind of privacy in everyday places.”

Madison surveillance plan raises questions about privacy

The owners of Hair Forum and Segredo nightclub, two businesses along the stretch, told WISC-TV this week that they supported the police plan.

The cameras would help rid the area of troublemakers and improve their businesses, the owners said.

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