Council debates cameras at gazebo

FRONT ROYAL – A town council member wants the police department to take down the surveillance cameras around the gazebo.

Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger initiated the discussion about her request at a work session this week.

“I think we’re going down a slippery slope where bad things might happen all over town and are we going to put innocent citizens under surveillance all over town under the guise of crime prevention?” Egger said. “I’d like to see them taken down.”

The town installed cameras at the gazebo years ago when problems arose. Vice Mayor Hollis Tharpe recalled that he and now Mayor Timothy Darr served on council at the time and had asked the police chief then to come up with a potential solution. The gazebo had become a popular area for loitering. Tharpe said crime around the gazebo and downtown has decreased in part because of the cameras as well as police patrols.

Cameras likely would not deter homeless people from staying around the gazebo, Egger said. There are no signs posted near or at the gazebo advising people of the surveillance cameras.

Councilman Bret Hrbek sided with Egger.

“I always thought they were hooked up to a webcam, frankly, just as a tourism thing,” Hrbek said. “I didn’t realize there were any recordings going on.”

The town could not regulate the use of surveillance cameras set up by downtown property owners and businesses on their buildings, Egger said.

Darr asked if other localities such as Winchester or Culpeper operate surveillance cameras, and added that he preferred the town posted signs about the cameras.

“I would like some more information, just to be safe,” Darr said. “If it comes back that other places don’t use them and that they’re not good, I’m willing to take them down.”

Many people don’t know about the cameras, Egger said.

But Councilman John Connolly cited his concern with protecting public property. Connolly pointed out that the town will unveil an electric car charger near the gazebo.

“I’m just kind of wondering what the solution is for keeping town property safe,” Connolly said.

“We have lots of property all over town,” Egger said. “Are we going to put cameras up all over town…?”

Vandals spray-painted the caboose by the gazebo over the weekend, Town Manager Steve Burke told council. Now town officials want to install an additional camera to watch the caboose. The town installed a light last to illuminate the eastern face of the caboose in the hopes of deterring vandals.

“Unfortunately, it just served to give them better lighting,” Burke said.

Warren County experiences vandalism at the parks and recreational facilities it maintains, Tharpe said. Vandals tried to burn a picnic table at Fantasyland, Tharpe added.

“Things like this are going to happen all the time and I understand we don’t want stuff like this happening,” Egger said. “But, again, it all goes back to the fact that 99 percent of people are innocent citizens that should be able to go and sit at the town square or wherever and not be under surveillance. It’s a liberty-versus-security issue.”

“I don’t get that feeling,” Tharpe chimed. “If the camera’s on me, who cares?”

Darr noted that “there’s a difference between being under surveillance and being recorded.”

Egger said it’s the job of the government to protect citizens. Connolly asked if it’s also the government’s job to protect its property paid with taxes. Egger said the police department can protect the property. Connolly then asked if the town should post a police officer downtown full time. Egger said an officer has been assigned to patrol the Main Street area.

“… I think the best crime deterrent is people knowing that we have a good police force, that they’re out, they have a presence,” Egger said. “People know our police officers.”

Darr asked town staff to bring back information and answers to questions about the matter to a future council work session.

Kevin Nicewarmer, with the police department, stated in a memo to council that cameras assisted or could have aided in the agency’s investigation of several incidents that occurred in the gazebo area, including a stabbing and assault on East Main Street in April and a larceny in which the suspect placed a BB gun in a flower bed near the gazebo that he later retrieved. Investigators also used surveillance cameras operated by Main Street Pawn in an Aug. 20 case of theft and impersonating an officer and the Sept. 15 vandalism of a vehicle parked by the gazebo.

Police also receive complaints about people using illegal narcotics near the gazebo.

Nicewarmer added that the cameras can be used in identifying leads in the event of a crime or as a deterrent if people are aware of the ongoing surveillance.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com