At Monday night's Metro Council Budget and Finance Committee meeting, members voted to once again defer a resolution that would fund the placement of cameras in parks with homeless encampments. The bill would also fund renovations at Brookmeade Park — home to a camp that has grown dramatically in recent years — and construction vehicles to clear debris.
The bill has garnered controversy in recent weeks. When the committee voted to defer the bill, in part because of the surveillance cameras, Mayor John Cooper invited councilmembers to tour the homeless camps. Several councilmembers took to social media to criticize the invitation, and some questioned whether purchasing these cameras was the best use of federal American Rescue Plan dollars — concerns reiterated at Monday's budget meeting.
There was also discussion about whether the cameras and construction were being funded as ways to deal with the homeless camps in these parks. Councilmember Sean Parker said he was concerned the vehicles could signal an attempt to remove the camps, and filed an amendment to remove funding for the construction equipment.
District 26 Councilmember Courtney Johnston, a sponsor of the bill, said the bill is not intended as a way to address homelessness and that the construction vehicles would be deployed once the camp residents had been moved to housing.
But Councilmember Colby Sledge of District 17 pointed out that the bill’s caption says the funds are “to be used for managing homeless encampments.” He also described a situation involving people experiencing homelessness gathering at Azafrán Park — that park already had a camera, but the situation was resolved by coordinating between departments and services, not surveillance.
Sponsors of the bill, staff from the mayor’s administration and police officers defended the request for cameras and noted that several parks already have them. An officer with MNPD's Quality of Life team said several people experiencing homelessness told him and his colleagues they wanted the cameras. He offered to share footage of the interviews with councilmembers as well.
Pushing back against surveillance concerns, West Precinct Cmdr. David Corman said the cameras would not be actively monitored, though could be accessed in real time if needed. He also said the cameras could help because camp residents may fear retaliation for reporting crimes, or may not trust police enough to come forward.
Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda of District 30 asked the West Precinct commander if park cameras have prevented any crimes. Corman replied that they haven’t, since they aren’t actively monitored, but a temporary camera in Brookmeade Park did help solve one crime. Sepulveda also voiced concerns over whether the resolution was a good use of federal funds, noting that they were using the ARP dollars — designed to help recovery efforts during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — for capital investments.
After roughly an hour of back-and-forth, councilmembers on the committee voted to defer the bill until early December, allowing the councilmembers to meet with Vice Mayor Jim Shulman about the bill.
The committee also considered three amendments to the resolution: Parker’s request to remove the construction equipment, Sledge’s request to remove the cameras, and District 17 Councilmember Ginny Welsch’s call to remove the whole resolution. Only Parker’s amendment received enough votes for a committee recommendation.
The bill and amendments will still go before the Metro Council’s meeting tonight, though councilmembers may follow the committee’s lead and defer.
If the requested funding isn’t approved, it will likely go back to the pool of ARP dollars from which it can be allotted elsewhere. The city has until Dec. 31, 2024, to allocate the funds.