Downtown La Crosse isn’t Anycity, USA. Architecturally, it retains the look of a 19th century boom town, and certain frontier values remain amongst the people who call this city home. We’re not Washington, D.C., New York City or Chicago — and we like it that way. Sure, there is plenty we could do to make downtown La Crosse a more vibrant place, but 41 surveillance cameras are not the way to go.
If you hadn’t heard the news, the La Crosse City Vision Foundation recently announced plans to privately raise $475,000 and “donate” an intricate network of surveillance cameras that would cover the entirety of downtown.
There was an initial splash of support from the expected establishment voices. Perhaps you don’t recall being asked if you wanted to live in a place where your every motion could be reviewed by the police. That’s because those establishment voices never bothered to ask us, and if you don’t speak up soon, you may never get the chance.
Now, I’m sure the La Crosse City Vision Foundation — a respected group of downtown business owners and community leaders — has its heart in the right place. Following the recent homicides at May’s Photo, it’s only natural for the community to rally together, and the stated goal for the camera system is certainly public safety.
But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, La Crosse is not a big city. It’s not rife with crime, it’s not a terrorist target, and mounting video cameras won’t make people feel safer when walking amongst quaint shops and eateries.
And these won’t be inconspicuous video cameras either. Each and every one will have a prominent sign, alerting visitors as they turn every corner in the downtown district that they may be recorded and monitored by the police.
I don’t write this as a pure rabble-rouser or weekend carouser. I lived for four years in downtown La Crosse, in a flat on Pearl Street and in a loft on Third, and now I reside seven blocks away in the Washburn neighborhood.
Never in my time here have I feared for crime. If anything I was astounded by the sheer number of police officers patrolling my neighborhood, where evenings can be a veritable cop car menagerie. But if all that manpower doesn’t prevent drunken louts from acting a fool, what would be the effect of silent street signs or video cameras that are only monitored retroactively?
The La Crosse City Vision Foundation must see something different in this proposal. The group’s stated goal is to make downtown a more vibrant place, and to those ends, I support their efforts wholeheartedly. But what I fail to see is why anyone would be happier to stroll the historic downtown while under the constant gaze of cameras, not when there is  already so much we could do to visibly improve the neighborhood.
If you want to raise a half-million dollars to make downtown a better place, fantastic! How about we beautify Fifth Avenue, Cameron Park or the eastern end of Jay Street? I know that benches and bike racks would be appreciated by visitors. Maybe plant some flowers, install public art, or extend those classic brick sidewalks that make one-half of downtown a very pleasant place to stroll.
Or perhaps you want video cameras to attack the supposed scourge of graffiti. Fair enough. Why not do something about the vacant buildings while we’re at it, the empty trash lots and the monochromatic eyesores that invite graffiti in the first place?
Hey, we all want to prevent crime and create more pleasant places to gather. Maybe instead of investing in video cameras, we could actually install streetlights beyond a few square blocks of commerce and pedestrian corridors. I live just blocks from the city center, and my neighborhood is nearly pitch black at night and the site of the sort of property crimes and assaults that make some people think La Crosse has a crime wave.
But what galls me most about this whole surveillance camera “debate” is that there’s been no public discussion at all. Had a mayor or council member proposed spending a half-million dollars on video surveillance — this during a time of slashed social services and neighborhoods that are falling into disrepair —there would likely be at least some opposition in the council chambers. At the very least, we would hold public hearings on the issue, and the citizenry could give its input on the city’s surveillance priorities.
Although this plan is still in its infancy, I haven’t observed any public outreach. Let’s say the La Crosse City Vision Foundation actually does raise $475,000 from private donations to fund a video surveillance system. Maybe these donors see it as a public good, a business investment, or perhaps a beneficial tax deduction. Maybe they present it to City Hall with 41 beautiful bows. Very few council members would  vote against free gifts, and then we would all live under a surveillance system just because some private people thought it would be a good way to govern the rest of us.
Now, I’m not a paranoid, and I don’t typically succumb to the sorts of fearful hyperbole that are sometimes prone to people who share my civil libertarian streak. I don’t even want to have an argument about the very concept of “Big Brother,” but I do want to feel at ease when I walk around my hometown.
I suppose it’s a little ironic, then, that the pro-camera forces are the ones making the arguments of fear and paranoia. Exhibit A is the Petras murders, a truly awful crime but a statistical anomaly that was solved through the help of existing private cameras. Exhibit B, which La Crosse Tribune editor Chris Hardie cited in a laudatory editorial, was the Coon Creek Riots of 1991.
For those keeping track, that is two noteworthy incidents in 22 years. Otherwise the police department has not been forthcoming about other crimes that would have been solved with more comprehensive video surveillance, and no one has mentioned any that would have been prevented due to a heightened camera presence downtown.
What we have instead are anecdotes and conjectures. Of course, I recognize that we already have several privately monitored video cameras downtown that are occasionally reviewed by police.  I just don’t find it particularly comforting that our government would be gifted more monitoring power without anyone giving their consent. I know I’m not the only person that feels this way, but frankly no one’s asked us how we feel.
Hardie concludes his editorial with the most self-serving argument of all: “If you’re concerned about being captured on video in downtown La Crosse, then don’t break the law.” The thing is, you don’t have to break the law in order to be captured on video downtown, nor would you have to give permission before being monitored.
To be sure, La Crosse has its small-town charms and it also has its problems. Yet there are concrete solutions we can implement to fix them, especially with an innovative private/public partnership with the ambition to raise a half-million-dollar largesse. I would love to see us harness this energy and decide as a community the best ways to improve our most vital neighborhoods. But to me, 41 surveillance cameras sound like a solution in search of a problem.