'Big Brother is watching' you in Tampa

Early edition

Published November 19, 2006

TAMPA — When Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden spent a recent evening making drunken advances toward several women in a Tampa bar, he almost certainly didn’t realize that cameras were documenting his every move.

He should have.

With each passing year, more and more cameras record every aspect of our daily lives, from the most mundane activities to the most shameless behavior.

These days, whether you notice or not, cameras capture your image multiple times each day — in the parking lot at Wal-Mart, in the aisles of the grocery store, at traffic intersections, in the fast food drive-through, at the mall.

Many people even carry cell phones with built-in recorders.

“Everybody has a video system,” said Tampa police spokesman Larry McKinnon. “They’re everywhere.”

And yes, dear drinker, that means it’s more likely than ever that your bad behavior in the bar could come back to haunt you. Before engaging in any Belden-esque antics, know this: Most local bars keep the cameras rolling at all times.

“Smile,” said Jeannie Robinson, bartender at The Hub in Tampa, pointing to the small cameras mounted to the ceiling, “Big Brother is watching.”

She said the owner installed the system several years ago, and a sign out front warns, “This area under 24-hour surveillance.”

In Ybor City, manager Todd Leverett sat in the back office and scrolled through the seven cameras that keep watch over every corner of Coyote Ugly.

He said the system reveals exactly what happened in the event of a theft, a fight or a disagreement over who paid or who didn’t.

“It’s always easy to go back,” Leverett said. The video feeds also are accessible through the Internet, so even the bar’s owners in Georgia can peek in whenever they want.

Tampa Bay isn’t quite to the point of Milwaukee, where a city alderman recently proposed an ordinance that would require cameras in the city’s bars, taverns and nightclubs because multiple homicides had occurred outside such establishments.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley also wanted to mandate cameras for bars and nightclubs that stay open until 4 a.m.

But even without such a law, most bars already have their own surveillance systems in place, including even tame watering holes like King Corona cigar bar in Ybor City.

“It enhances security and ultimately protects the customer,” said employee Joe Howden. “If something happens, we have a record. It’s insurance.”

In Belden’s case, it might have proved pivotal in the outcome of the incident. Belden initially told a Times reporter he never touched a woman named Julie Irwin at Jackson’s Bistro that night. But Irwin’s lawyer said a videotape would back her account, and Belden later admitted his poor behavior and apologized.

Said Howden: Anywhere you go, “We’re all sort of watching each other now.”

He’s right.

As the technology of security cameras has gotten better and cheaper, their presence has multiplied. Cities have installed them to monitor airports and subways, government buildings and school classrooms, street corners and seaports.

Authorities say the more cameras the better, though civil liberties groups often argue that so many cameras are eroding personal privacy.

“Surveillance systems are always a benefit, from our perspective,” McKinnon said.

“Pictures are indisputable. It provides an excellent source of evidence for identifying suspects. And there are times it’s actually cleared somebody.”

He imagines a future with still more spying eyes.

“I don’t foresee very many public places left that won’t have camera systems,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point now that people just naturally assume there are cameras.”

“I’m not going to do anything wrong,” said Steve Gibson, as he sipped his beer at The Hub. He lived in Las Vegas for 14 years and grew accustomed to security cameras everywhere. “They are good things.”

A few stools away, Phil Kwiatkowski agreed. Mostly.

“Sometimes, I think your privacy is gone,” he said as he drank his Busch Light, adding, “I know they have to have cameras. I see the benefit.”

Even so, there are still safe havens around Tampa Bay where patrons can carouse without the fear of cameras capturing them at their worst.

But you’ll have to find them on your own. The surveillance-free bars contacted by the Times were not very eager to see their names in print.