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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Mayor Greg Fischer announced Wednesday that the city will install 24 security cameras in Waterfront Park, including on the Big Four Bridge, in response to a series of violent attacks downtown last Saturday night.
At the same time, Louisville Metro Police have undertaken a comprehensive review of the downtown surveillance camera network, including potentially tying in cameras on private businesses.
In remarks to reporters, Fischer said cameras at Waterfront Park will be in place before the popular Thunder Over Louisville air show and fireworks display on April 12.
"Cameras are proven deterrents around the country. This type of activity that took place Saturday night is not tolerable. We're not going to allow it," Fischer said.
"We're going to make the necessary investments, whether it's manpower with increased police presence, or capital expenditures like this with cameras to make sure that we have every possible safety measure in place."
Fischer said the $227,000 cost to install the cameras at Waterfront Park will come from a police account that includes drug forfeiture funds. The 24-hour video feeds will be simulcast to MetroSafe offices.
Asked whether the city is overreacting to the weekend violence by installing the cameras, Fischer said: "We looked at other cities and what they've done. They're a crime deterrent. if it's an overreaction and it costs us a little extra money – that's money well spent."
Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter said the cameras will take in large parts of the 85-acre park along the Ohio River – the site of former industrial scrapyards that now includes concert areas, sweeping lawns and children's playgrounds.
The use of surveillance cameras in cities across the world has expanded in recent years, but it's unclear whether the technology has reduced crime.
Michael Aldridge, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, said his organization doesn't object to cameras in high-profile areas that are terrorism targets or prone to crime, but "we do have a lot of concerns around balancing privacy issues with technology."
One of the ACLU's chief concerns is that video surveillance may lead to a "chilling effect" on people's behavior in public places, Aldridge said. For example, he said, will high-resolution cameras be able to make out the words on a book someone is reading in public?
Aldridge also questioned whether spending $227,000 on the cameras is "the best use of resources to really get to the root causes of what's causing the unrest in our community."
Pattern at Waterfront Park?
The attacks that erupted last Saturday night began at Waterfront Park before spreading through other parts of downtown.
About 200 young people were gathered at the Big Four Bridge when a group began attacking and robbing a 13-year-old girl, according to police. The group later assaulted a man who tried to intervene.
Louisville Metro Police have not yet responded to WDRB's request, under the Kentucky Open Records Act, for several years' worth of incident reports involving Waterfront Park and surrounding areas. Police Chief Steve Conrad told Metro Council members Wednesday that police are compiling recent data for crime at Waterfront Park.
Maj. Jeff Wardrip, commander of LMPD's first division, which includes downtown, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Police spokeswoman Alicia Smiley declined to make officers from the first division available for interviews.
Community activist Christopher 2X said teenagers from several parts of town gather often at the Waterfront on Saturdays when the weather is nice, setting up the gatherings through social media. Police are aware of the meet-ups, he said.
2X said there have been occasional skirmishes and runs by police to the area during these gatherings. He described the incidents as "petty arguments and fights" – but nothing like what happened over the weekend.
"Has it been to the extent people would feel it wasn't safe to go down there? I don't see any evidence of that," 2X said.
David Karem, president of the Waterfront Development Corp., which oversees the park, said there have been several instances in recent years in which "bands of kids" gathered in the park. Those incidents led waterfront officials to meet with police in 2012 and 2013, Karem said.
In particular, Karem said police notified him last year about concerns that an impromptu "rave" planned at Waterfront Park could escalate. Karem said he drove to the park and waited with police for more than an hour, but nothing serious happened.
"This is apparently the first year that any of them developed into a problem," he said.
In an interview, Karem said the park's security contractor is beefing up its patrols of the park for at least the next two weeks and adding an additional worker. Those two people will monitor the park from 7 p.m. until midnight, with the option of staying until 1 a.m., he said.
Keeping Waterfront Park safe is largely the responsibility of the city's police force. The Waterfront Development Corp.'s $2.4 million budget for fiscal 2014 includes $31,200 for security, which involves a private contractor making random checks, with an emphasis on park vandalism, Karem said.
The corporation, which was established by local and state governments to shepherd the waterfront project, receives most of its funding from Metro Louisville. The board is appointed by Louisville's Mayor and Kentucky's governor.
Funding for security has remained flat in recent years, even as the park has expanded and added the popular Big Four Bridge. The full span is expected to be complete this spring.
Fischer, who serves on the waterfront board, declined to answer directly whether he is comfortable with the amount of security money in the agency's budget.
Asked whether more money should be allocated for security, Karem noted that the agency has grappled with budget cuts, but he also insisted that policing the park is the city's responsibility.
"It's never been the intent for Waterfront to become a security agency," he said.
Karem said security features were built into the park with the help of police, fire and emergency management officials – designing, for example, a roundabout at the top of the Big Four Bridge for emergency vehicles to turn around.
Karem, who was interviewed hours before Fischer announced plans to add cameras in the park, said he would support additional cameras if police and city officials favor them.
He also said concerns about the park's safety take away from larger, societal issues at the root of last weekend's violence.
"Let's change our focus to these criminal elements that are causing the problem and deal with the criminal elements, as opposed to blaming venues," Karem said.