The recent decision by the Lawrence City Commission to permit the installation of police surveillance cameras in downtown Lawrence raises a number of important issues. As the commission considers a detailed policy on the use of the cameras, I would like to offer the following thoughts.
A fundamental characteristic of a “good society” is that it promotes a viable public life including the provision of free and open public space. Downtown Lawrence is as close to a “town square” as we have, and walking down Mass Street, visiting shops, sitting in an outdoor cafe, being in a parade or joining a protest march are liberties most of us take for granted. When we venture into public space, it is not that we have a reasonable expectation of privacy; it is more that we have an expectation of anonymity, to move about freely and, if we choose, inconspicuously, unfettered by the close supervision of the state. So when authorities intrude on that space, systematically recording our activities — without probable cause and for no specific purpose — it can have a chilling effect on civic participation and our sense of freedom.
Of course, the cameras themselves are not all that intrusive — although signage about them may be — but it is how they are used that can be problematic. Even if you are not doing anything wrong, your lawful behavior may be interpreted in ways that you have no control over. For example, a few years ago, it was revealed that the Denver Police Department had been recording the peaceful protest activities of various local organizations, sharing that information with other agencies and even falsely labeling some of the groups “criminal extremists” including, astonishingly, the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization.
On a practical level, the LPD has simply not made the case that there is a crime problem to be solved or how these cameras will solve it. They state, vaguely, that their goal is “to monitor and manage downtown traffic, parades and other large activities as well as capture evidence of criminal activity.” And Chief Khatib has stated that the cameras “really proved themselves with the Final Four.” But just how did they prove themselves? How many crimes were thwarted and how many arrests were made as a direct result of the cameras? We should hear more details so that we can balance the potential costs of the plan with actual benefits.
The police and hopeful citizens alike evoke the purported “safety” that the cameras will bring, but this confidence is questionable. First, research suggests that whatever deterrent effect such cameras may produce, the result is that crime is often displaced to other areas. Second, Chief Khatib states that, “The people monitoring the camera can see the scene and relay some really useful information to the responding officers.” But this is a complicated process and not so easily accomplished.
Video surveillance is inconsistent at best in providing usable assistance or evidence. Poor image quality, limited camera angles and a ball cap or hoodie can limit suspect identification. Moreover, some will say that the cameras make them feel “safe,” but I would suggest that this is a false sense of security that actually works to undermine their alertness to their surroundings. An assault, for instance, can take place in a matter of seconds and the incident may be completely missed by an inattentive operator or the perpetrator is long gone before the police are alerted.
Finally, in order to save money, cities often hire civilian operators with limited training. These workers sitting in a control room far from the scene will view the equivalent of millions of “pictures” per day. Fatigue, the limited view of the cameras and the fact that operators hear no sound means that their “situated knowledge” of what is actually taking place is lost. How can they tell the difference between, say, a group of friends “horsing around” and an actual assault? Too many “false alarms” and the police stop taking them seriously. And when functioning with such limited knowledge, operators develop a set of “working rules” and tend to find “suspicious” behavior in the “usual suspects:” groups of men, teenagers and people of color.
The police are tasked with preventing crime and protecting the public and they seek all the “tools” available to them. That’s understandable. But the responsibility of citizens, as well as our elected officials, is to keep police powers in check, to make sure that they use those tools for us and not against us. I would submit that the installation of police surveillance cameras in downtown Lawrence is an unnecessary intrusion into our public space, a costly and questionable strategy of crime prevention and a potential threat to our civil liberties. If these cameras are to be permitted, the City Commission should develop a policy that puts strict limits on their placement and use and outlines clear procedures for access, security, retention, sharing and disposal of any video surveillance records produced.