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Salem Mayor’s Office: We Have To Install The Spy Cameras Before We Can Discuss The Spy Cameras

On March 9, 2010, in the heated struggle to approve the controversial “Obamacare” legislation (aka “Affordable Care Act”), then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) made national headlines when she tried to support the Bill and remarked, “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it….”

Pelosi’s line comes to mind regarding the roiling debate in Salem about proposed surveillance cameras that may (or may not) be installed at some yet-unclarified locations around town.

The Roanoke Star reached out to Salem Mayor Renée TurkVice Mayor Jim Wallace, and City Manager Christopher Dorsey, who began his position on January 8, 2024.

The questions were as follows:

  • Do you have any statement about the issue of city-funded surveillance cameras, and your personal perspective on it?
  • Do you know about how many cameras there will be, and how much it will cost to install and operate them?
  • Who will have access to all that information collected, and where and how long will it be stored?

Vice Mayor Wallace did respond, City Manager Dorsey did not, and Mayor Turk did not respond but delegated the task to Communications Manager Mike Stevens.

It’s unclear if Stevens realized he was taking a page from Pelosi’s Playbook, but twice he essentially claimed, (paraphrased), “The cameras haven’t been approved yet, so it’s too early to talk about it, but if they are, then we can have a discussion.”

Stevens did not mention the obvious fact that, once an item has been approved and funded, discussion at that late point is basically meaningless. Moreover, Stevens claimed City Council members cannot approve or nix certain items, but rather must vote the entire budget up or down on one vote.

Stevens’ entire response is as follows:

“Mayor Turk forwarded me the note you sent her regarding the possible use of safety cameras in Salem. Once this is a reality, she and other Council members, and staff will be glad to offer all the information and comments you need. However, at this stage it is just one of hundreds of items in an unapproved budget.

“The Police Department has had these cameras in its budget for several years, but for various financial reasons it was removed for more pressing needs.

“During the past two weeks, on three different days, each department in the city met with the City Manager, Assistant City Manager, the Finance Department, and Council to discuss their respective budget for the upcoming fiscal year. To date, any items discussed in those open meetings were just possible items for inclusion in the budget.

“Also, council does not ‘vote’ on every line item in the budget. They may discuss certain ones and gauge interest, but the members only vote to accept the budget in its entirety.

“Until the budget is approved and until we see if these safety cameras will be included in it, any discussion would be premature . . . I am sorry if some misinformation or inaccuracies led you this way prematurely, but again, we will be glad to assist if this item is part of the approved budget for 2024-25.”

In contrast to Stevens’ somewhat glib tone, Vice Mayor Wallace had a decidedly more negative view of the situation. His responses are:

“I’m adamantly against these cameras as I think they are an invasion of privacy.  For the past two budget cycles, cameras were in the asking budget for the police department and I was able to convince my colleagues to eliminate the funding. Regrettably, I was not able to have funding eliminated for the 2025 budget.  Initially there will be two cameras installed at $14,000.00.  That does not include any data storage or administration costs.  It was said that these cameras will be used to monitor the coming and going of vehicles, and not traffic enforcement. I think it was mentioned that one will be at Main and Shanks, and the other at 419 and Main, but that could change.

“This is opening Pandora’s box and it has the potential to become a very slippery downhill slope.  I can envision the police coming back each budget year asking for more cameras and before the citizens know it, they won’t be able to go anywhere in the city without being watched.  One can find examples of this happening in other communities, and eventually some communities shut the entire system down, but other communities have not been so lucky.

“But, what happens in a few years if you have a new police chief or the city needs revenue? Mindsets could change and it would be easy to start sending out citations for traffic violations or recording license plates in a data base.  If you have read some of the articles out there, some localities are collecting a few hundred thousand dollars in fines annually which is basically a tax because the cameras have not reduced accidents, and in some cases red light cameras have contributed to an increase in accidents.

“The other very troubling issue is they want to move forward with cameras without having a use policy in effect.  I maintain that there needs to be a clear policy established and that Council needs to be the one writing the policy.  Some of my colleagues argue that the police can write policy….that is like the fox guarding the henhouse, and other colleagues don’t feel any policy is needed.  The proposal is that data would only be stored for 21 days.  But, if you don’t have a policy, then the police can do whatever they want to do, including traffic enforcement at some point in the future.  You ask some good questions,  and without a policy they can’t be answered, and in my mind that is a bad thing.

“Feel free to reach out if you have any further questions.  It sounds like you are going to shine some sunlight on the issue which is a good thing as this was not handled in a transparent manner.”

For some, the issue is enhanced safety to scan license plates and possibly find criminals, abducted children, etc. For others, it’s like 1984 come to life, with more and more of our lives filmed and stored. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin quipped, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Will Big Brother be watching you in Salem?

–Scott Dreyer

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