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County considers video surveillance at Courthouse

 By Carolyn Kahant for TaxpayersWatch

 Posted 7/16/05         Updated 10/21/05


Commissioners settle on panic button system only


 In an April 18 editorial, the Kerrville Daily Times voiced approval of the growing use of video surveillance as a crime prevention tactic. Speaking in general terms, widespread video surveillance was called "a necessary evil to deter or capture crimes" and "uncomfortable only for the camera-shy and self-conscious."


I and at least one other person wrote letters to the editor in response to this editorial, but neither were published.


There was no event or announcement that I could see, preceding this editorial, that would explain why it was written. But then, on May 9th, Sheriff Rusty Heirholzer formally told Kerr County Commissioners Court that he wanted guidance on whether to proceed with seeking a grant to purchase camera surveillance equipment to be installed in and around the Courthouse.


It became clear that this was not a new subject. Jonathan Letz responded that he thought it was a good approach, saying "... and you know, I've told Rusty this ... he's aware that I think we need to add personnel as well to the courthouse security." He concluded with, "I don't have any problem with it."


Commissioner Bill Williams' comment was also, "I don't have a problem with it."


 Disappearing privacy


The privacy of Americans have been disappearing, and often in ways that we are unaware of. For example, how many know that their medical information is no longer private? The misnamed Federal Privacy Act (under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) actually grants permission to federal bureaucrats, researchers and thousands of organizations, unrelated to our healthcare, to access our health information, including past medical records and genetic information.


I mention this as an example of how we are becoming accustomed to the loss of privacies we once took for granted. We are accommodating these incursions in the name of some promised benefits or widely promoted "common good", "war on crime", and now "war on terror."


Sheriff Hierholzer is proposing an elaborate camera system based on his assessment that, "we are very weak in this, in courthouse security, and because of what's happening over the past couple of months across the nation." I assume he's referring to a couple of high-profile courthouse attacks in other parts of the country that occurred at that time.


He also said, "I think that it is a high topic and a hot topic right now." Yes, strike while the iron is hot! This is the time to get the citizens to agree to the need for it. And finally, he tells us, "We've had cases of criminal mischief around the courthouse at night."


So, because of some mischief around the courthouse at night, and an unfortunate tragedy or two that occurred in courthouses in other states, we must install a 24-hour camera system to observe innocent citizens as they come and go? Before you wave this off as a case of "If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about" -- please take a moment to consider what precedent may be set to do the same thing in other public places. Do you really think we need to have cameras, and watchers 'monitoring us' wherever we go?


A camera system and a panic system


The description of what we would be getting is 1) a camera system and 2) a panic system. Hierholzer said he expects the bid for the two systems to come in excess of $100,000 for a total of about 120 panic buttons and 54 cameras.  


As visualized, all county departments would have a panic button, for use by the department head and a few select employees, which would go to dispatch, directly across a radio system, or to Courthouse security personnel. In the latter case of security personnel, if they consider it a genuine emergency, they will push a button on their radio that would go out across the entire radio frequency, calling all cars to the courthouse with red lights and sirens.


The camera system would require two additional security personnel, one just to monitor the cameras. The grant, however, would not pay for personnel. The cameras on the outside would be a zoom-type digital system that would cover "every office downstairs all the way through the top and around the outside of the courthouse" according to the Sheriff.  Any time there's movement in front of the camera, it automatically records. Select cameras would be monitored 24 hours a day.


Fifty-four is a lot of cameras. A case can be made for  the panic buttons, and for some cameras outside, set up to record movement. But cameras inside, and monitoring of cameras in real-time is overkill in a basically peaceful community like ours. The presence of surveillance cameras throughout the courthouse interior will change the atmosphere and impede the sense of friendly, small-town interaction between the public and county employees that we now enjoy.


"Just say no" to cameras in the courthouse


In the recent past, press cameras were not allowed in Kerr County Commissioners Court, even though state law, under the Texas Open Meetings Act, provides for that in Commissioners Courts. Should cameras not be allowed to focus on government officials when conducting the public's business, but focus instead on the people as they go about their private business? Scrutiny should be focused on government, by the people -- not on the people by government.


Also worth mentioning is that those in control of the cameras have the ability to turn them off, delete material or sieze the tapes if the images shown are not in their best interests, regardless of the law . This has been done in numerous high-profile cases nationally and is not as far-fetched as it might sound.


Cameras were in use at the Juvenile Detention Facility in 2003-04, yet all charges of abuse were denied, even by the Sheriff, until a state agency, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, looked at the video tapes and acknowledged the abuse did take place. This lesson is repeated again and again: Cameras are not a sure-fire way to bring about justice ... or security.


It's best to be cautious and "just say no" to cameras in the courthouse.


Commissioners pass on surveillance cameras this year


We're happy to report that the Commissioners Court refused Hierholzer's request to pursue a video surveillance system this year. At an August 9th budget workshop, they authorized the Sheriff to proceed with seeking a grant for the panic button security system.



 The following is from the transcript of the minutes of the May 9th, 2005 Commissioners Court:

SHERIFF HIERHOLZER: And I need kind of a direction, because it will impact my budget preparations. Number one, I'll tell you like I told you before; Capital Outlay items for both jail and Sheriff's Office, we're going to submit zero for both of those. That includes our cars. I'll pay them out of a seizure account.


 The second thing is, I am cutting two personnel positions at the Sheriff's Office, one in the Sheriff's Office, one in the jail. But we are getting a lot of -- and I think we are very weak in this, in courthouse security, and because of what's happened over the past number of months across the nation I have been looking at courthouse security strongly. We had Guardian -- the people that redid all the camera system and that in the jail over here last week. They are submitting me a bid for a camera system --monitored system that's reported, and for a panic system that we give pretty well all department heads and a number of people in each department a capability of pushing a button, and it will either go to our dispatch immediately, or go across a radio system immediately, or it will go to a courthouse security officer, where that tells him that they need help in this department. And if he gets there and sees they need help, he pushes a button that's on his radio, and it will go across our entire radio frequency saying that there is an emergency at the courthouse, and then it's -- all cars are red lights and sirens to the courthouse. But that button will be controlled by the courthouse security personnel, except for J.P. 4, 'cause this will cover all the J.P.'s and satellite offices, the same system will. J.P. 4 will have to go directly to our cars because of the way it works, and no security officer up there all the time.


 I would expect that bid's going to come in -- and this is a total guess at this point right now, just by what the camera system cost us in the jail and what the -- the panic system was costing -- is going to cost us last year, but I would guess it's going to be in excess of $100,000 to do these upgrades. What I am asking is guidance, and will this Court allow me to apply to the Peterson Foundation for a grant to cover the cost
of these upgrades? I think that it is a high topic and a hot topic right now. I think that upgrades are definitely needed, and I think it would be something that Peterson Foundation, in the past, would look at, because it does serve all the citizens that use this courthouse, and the security capacity. So, I would like -- you know, we've always talked about -- I don't want to just go out for a local foundation grant without y'all's approval.


 COMMISSIONER LETZ: I think -- I personally think it's a good approach. And I think that the other part of that is that, even with -- and, you know, I've told Rusty this; is he's aware that I think we probably need to add personnel as well to courthouse security, which is part of -- his reserve program may help that. But that's somewhat iffy, but I don't have any problem with it.

 SHERIFF HIERHOLZER: I'll have figured in this budget two additional courthouse security personnel that would go along with that, and I'm hoping to get by with one if the reserve program kicks off well enough between now and October. Okay. I just don't know exactly how many reserves I'm going to be able to have, but my plan is one would be to monitor the camera system. That doesn't have to necessarily be an officer; it needs to be somebody trained and has capabilities, so we can work on that part of it. But one is -- Chuck's position upstairs stays there, and one more for downstairs that we could control this and respond quickly to any of those panic systems.

COMMISSIONER LETZ: I think it's an important component of the grant is that we're
not just asking the Foundation to fix the courthouse security problem. We're asking for the hardware; we're adding personnel. And I think, the way they work, they
would like that.


 SHERIFF HIERHOLZER: Personnel would not be part of the grant. It's just the
equipment. And we've had -- as Juvenile Probation can tell you, we've had cases of criminal mischief around the courthouse at night. The camera system that would be on the outside is a zoom-type camera system that would record all this digitally so that we would have a lot better capabilities, and it goes from -- from every office downstairs all the way through the top and around the outside of the courthouse, where -- a camera system that would be monitored from here, the -- the broadband, where that came into effect. That will also allow us at the jail to take a certain select few of those cameras that we want to monitor 24 hours a day. 'Cause here they're mainly going to get monitored during the -- during the business hours. You know, they're recorded.

Any time there's any movement in the camera, it's like we have at the jail; it automatically records so the next day we could review those. But there's some cameras we might want to monitor 24 hours a day around the courthouse.

COMMISSIONER WILLIAMS: I don't have a problem with it.


 SHERIFF HIERHOLZER: I have to wait till I see what the bid -- what the figures come in at, but I'm guessing it's going to be at least that.


 JUDGE TINLEY: Well, of course, we need to be mindful that right now we're gathering specs more than anything else.




 JUDGE TINLEY: Because, in all probability, we're going to have to advertise for bids. But we need to figure out what type of security system we need before we can even --

SHERIFF HIERHOLZER:  Yeah.  It's going to equal out to about 120 panic buttons and 54 cameras, so it's been figured right now.

COMMISSIONER LETZ:  But I think once you get the bids in you'll probably have
 another meeting.  I don't know if this is something that –


SHERIFF HIERHOLZER:  But in my budget preparation, to be able to get it turned in, I need to know the personnel, looking at courthouse security.  Our courthouse security budget has not changed except for Chuck's, you know, longevity and cost in five years.

COMMISSIONER WILLIAMS:  We have a separate fund for courthouse security?


SHERIFF HIERHOLZER:  There is some funds that are -- but I don't know; I think Tommy and I looked at it. I think our courthouse security budget right now, total is about -- 'cause all it is is his salary and benefits and that, and it's about 44,000.  But I think the funds generated -- and I think there is a bill that would up those fees that defendants would have to pay before the Legislature right now.  But I think last year, the funds generated, what I was told, was somewhere around 35,000.


COMMISSIONER WILLIAMS:  Where would you put all this equipment, monitors and so forth?

SHERIFF HIERHOLZER:  When you step off the elevator upstairs, what we have allowed the 198th District Attorney's office to use while they're here, whenever
they're up here, that one glass little cubbyhole there. That's what that was originally designed for when y'all changed that.  And we looked at it, and it would be a perfect place to do all the monitoring of the cameras and everything.

COMMISSIONER LETZ:  I think once you get the proposals back, put it on our agenda.


  SHERIFF HIERHOLZER:  Okay.  Well, I just needed some kind of guidance to know about manpower in the budget.  Thank you.

JUDGE TINLEY:  Thank you, sir.  We appreciate it.  Any other reports to be rendered to the Court?  Any further business?  We will stand adjourned.



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