An Athens County attorney is looking to increase security on Court Street but is working against low interest and privacy concerns.
Keller Blackburn, Athens County prosecuting attorney, said he felt there needed to be more cameras on Court Street. The existing cameras were installed in 2008, Chief of Police Tom Pyle said, and are antiquated and unusable.
Blackburn said he does not believe the number of cameras is sufficient, even if they were fully functional.
Blackburn has tried to partner with the city in the past and is currently trying to partner with Ohio University.
“We tried with the city in the past, and we had not gotten anywhere,” Blackburn said. “I’m currently trying with Ohio University. I’ve talked to Uptown building owners, and they’ve expressed interest, but I need buy-in from the university and the city. I’ve reached out to the president’s office at the university to try and get this done. I’m still waiting for a response from the university.”
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said the city is working on a project to thread underground fiber cable through the city, and part of the project is to replace existing security cameras. Patterson also said the project would allow cameras to be placed in other areas of the city. He said he would be happy to have county leaders, including Blackburn, on the project.
The cost of replacing the old cameras would come from American Rescue Plan dollars, Patterson said. Additionally, he said the project would take about a year to finish.
Blackburn said in the past, his office has offered to help pay for cameras.
“I’m pretty confident that we can get the cameras paid for, whether it be a combination of multiple funding sources,” Blackburn said. “There’s a lot of people who are interested in keeping the students safe and the citizens safe.”
However, Patterson said the conversation to install more cameras or update cameras on Court Street has not been a recent conversation among county commissioners or Blackburn. Additionally, the university does not have plans for cameras at this time.
“OUPD was engaged in a conceptual conversation some time ago about a partnership between the city, county and university to increase cameras on Court Street, but the conversation identified a number of obstacles related to infrastructure and ended without identifying a clear path forward,” Carly Leatherwood, a university spokesperson, said in an email.
Patterson and Blackburn both addressed privacy concerns regarding the cameras and said there are already cameras everywhere in Athens, noting there are businesses that already have them both indoors and outdoors.
“The way that the courts treat such things is to say that, essentially, once you step outside of your home, or your apartment or your dormitory … your expectation of privacy almost doesn’t exist at that point,” Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, of Ohio, said. “Courts have been slowly catching up … with this intersection of technology and privacy because technology changes everything.”
Daniels said the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio would like to see the courts change their perspective and listen to citizens.
“We are in this environment where the courts tell people what their expectation of privacy is. We think that should be flipped,” Daniels said. “We think that the people should be the ones telling government officials, ‘If I’m walking down the street … my expectation of privacy is that the government is not surveilling me.’”
Patterson said the cameras would not be watched all the time, but the data would be stored so the police and prosecutor could review the footage in the case of a crime.
“If someone were stabbed, if someone were raped, or if someone were sexually (or) physically harassed by someone else, if we have cameras that can capture that and we can prosecute, that’s a win for our citizens,” Patterson said.
However, Daniels said there are not much cameras can do to deter crime, and they can even push crime into areas where no cameras are present.
“For people who are concerned about this, I think they should encourage the prosecutor to track data over the course of … a year or however many years or months of when did surveillance cameras assist with a prosecution and what exactly was the underlying crime or crimes,” Daniels said. “It all goes back to what are we willing to give up and what are we gaining as a result.”
There currently is no partnership between the county prosecutor, university or city to put more cameras on Court Street.
“I have attempted and continue to attempt to get Ohio University and the city of Athens to invest in cameras up and down Court Street,” Blackburn said. “There is no reason, in this day and age, that cameras shouldn’t be accessible, especially in an environment where alcohol is very prevalent, and we’ve had so many sexual assaults reported.”