FL: Convention spoils help bolster Tampa’s surveillance state

By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog

ST. PETERSBURG — A vast network of surveillance cameras, armored trucks with weapons mounting capabilities and state-of-the-art bulletproof vests strong enough to withstand high-caliber rounds.

Those are just a few of the spoils enjoyed by the Tampa Police Department during the highly anticipated Republican National Convention, which occupied the city from Aug.27-30 and hosted close to 45,000 delegates, guests and members of the media.

But while most of the conventiongoers have long since left Tampa Bay, the millions of dollars in security costs awarded to local police departments have stayed put, engendering a new kind of technological surveillance state never before seen by Florida residents.

The money in question was allocated by Congress in early 2012, designating $50 million each to the RNC in Tampa and the Democratic National Convention inCharlotte in order to cover “security costs” expected by host cities.

Initial documents released by the city showed that just over half of the $50 million was spent on bringing in 3,000 police officers for the event, paying for overtime, food and equipment costs.

“We released a semi-final report because there were still invoices coming in,” said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis,noting that more than $2.7 million has yet to be reported. She told Florida Watchdog that “several purchases” have yet to be budgeted and they will be released to the public as soon as possible.

After personnel costs, the next greatest expenditures were “technology and cameras,” according to the Tampa Police Department, totaling nearly $11.6 million as of the last review.

This includes $2 million for 60 or more surveillance cameras dispatched throughout the city during the RNC

But according to officials, they will now become a prime tool of the department in deterring crime.

“ATMs take your picture. Buildings have cameras,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times while trying to downplay privacy concerns. “Those cameras are vital for us to keep this environment safe and to attract people to come here.”

As recently as Nov. 2, Tampa Police hoped to generate public support for the mass network of surveillance cameras by boasting in a news release, “RNC closed circuit cameras help officers make fast arrest in garage attack.”

After a woman was attacked in the parking garage, police were able to locate footage of the suspect leaving the scene and promptly arrested him.

“Without the closed circuit video, detectives would need DNA to confirm the suspect’s identity which would take at least five days,” reads the release.

Federal grants

In 2011, the city of Tampa received $12.5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and $1.1 million from the Department of Justice, allocated for “crime reduction” and for “mitigating terrorism,” according to the auditor’s report.

These grants have allowed the police department to maintain its fleet of armored vehicles and fund special “counter-terrorism training,” according to the police department’s website.

According to the latest 2013 budget proposal, the city of Tampa also is able to afford its own Homeland Security Grant Coordinator at an annual salary of $47,765, whose sole duty is to manage the millions of dollars that pour into the city’s police department.

The press office of the city of Tampa did not return calls to Florida Watchdog.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oka, introduced a bill banning the public funding of political party conventions earlier this year, and it was overwhelmingly agreed to in the House.

While it aims to strip funding for the actual conventions, it makes no mention of the nearly $100 million in security funds allocated each year a convention is held.

A similar version of the bill also passed in the Senate, prompting both chambers to present a merged bill to be voted on in the last remaining month of the legislative session on Capitol Hill.

Read more: Florida Watchdog

Yaël Ossowski is an international consumer activist and writer. His writings and interviews have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and online outlets across the world in multiple languages. He is founder and editor of Devolution Review, deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, and senior development officer for Students For Liberty. He was previously a national investigative reporter at Watchdog.org. He has a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) from the CEVRO Institute in Prague and a Bachelor's in Political Science from Concordia University, Montreal. He currently splits his time between Vienna, Austria and Charlotte, North Carolina.
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