Archive for Friday, July 13, 2012

Downtown cameras demand strict limits

July 13, 2012

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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.

Bill Staples is professor of sociology at Kansas University and a resident of downtown Lawrence.

Comments

Kate Rogge 2 years, 10 months ago

"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."

Exactly right.

Thomas Bryce 2 years, 10 months ago

You have to realize that some officials think everyone is guilty of something, they just haven't been caught yet. So much for the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

The presumption of innocence is guaranteed in a court of law. Out in the streets, we are all free to assume guilt or innocence to our heart's content.

Thomas Bryce 2 years, 10 months ago

Yes ,We as a people are free to assume guilt or innocence to our heart's content. Not so with an officer of the Law. A scary place this would be if we assume the Police Look at all of us as Guilty of something, they just don't know what yet. So they watch. Have you seen how our incarceration rate per capita stacks up against other "Modern" countries?

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

Don't you think that our incarceration rates being higher is a function of the fact that more crimes are being committed here than in other "Modern" countries?

Thomas Bryce 2 years, 10 months ago

Are there facts to bear that out?I would like to see them. It is a good point but the threshold for what is a crime in America has been lowered and lowered over the past decade.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 10 months ago

The "fact" is that there are many areas of Detroit I would not go to after dark. The same is true for Oakland. And for many other cities in America, including Kansas City. In "fact", I might not go to those areas at high noon, because of their reputations of having high crime rates. Here's to hoping Lawrence doesn't become like those places.

But I don't have any statistics to back up my intuitive claims.

Thomas Bryce 2 years, 10 months ago

That.s cool. Yes those places are notorious. I agree with you in hoping Lawrence never gets that bad.I have lived in Houston,TX, Atlanta GA. and Kansas City MO. I really Appreciate Small towns For this reason.

classclown 2 years, 10 months ago

Just one more reason to avoid going downtown.

msezdsit 2 years, 10 months ago

Yep, I will be absent and so will my money

CommonSense741776 2 years, 10 months ago

This author is quick to intrude upon the privacy of his neighbors, demanding that they maintain their private areas according to his personal preferences, so his objection to simply being observed in public seems rather hypocritical.

Thomas Bryce 2 years, 10 months ago

Yes, we as a people are free to assume Guilt or Innocence to our heart's content. Not so with an Officer of the Law.A scary place this would be if we assume the Police look at all of us as guilty of something,they just don't know what yet. So, they watch. Have you seen how our incarceration rate per capita stacks up against all other "Modern" countries?

msezdsit 2 years, 10 months ago

Nothing good will come from this venture. Not to mention it opens a whole new dimension to profiling.

Missingit 2 years, 10 months ago

If the cameras are used to see how many times I go to Chipolte then I have a problem. There are cameras everywhere. How many times am I on camera when I walk by a ATM downtown?

brent flanders 2 years, 10 months ago

classclown, thank you for staying out of downtown, if this is your myopic perspective

in the end to provide safety, as is done around the world, what is one afraid of - the potential of poor video quality - or the actual act of committing a crime?

it appears most societies that use CCTV feel safer, have less crime, and are marginally worried about their personal rights being abused.

deec 2 years, 10 months ago

Cameras don't stop crime. They just make it easier for the police to figure out whodunnit.

Thinking being watched all the time keeps you safe is the same delusion as feeling taking your shoes off before boarding an airplane keeps terrorists from striking.

headdoctor 2 years, 10 months ago

Let us hope that those monitoring and maintaining the cameras aren't like those caught working airport security. Otherwise there will probably be a lot of bare butt pictures, etc up loaded to the internet.

Richard Heckler 2 years, 10 months ago

Has Lawrence become so unsafe as to warrant the militarization of the the Lawrence Police Department? and these cameras which do not stop crime.

Is more crime the result of Lawrence growth? With certain powers that be constantly pushing for more Lawrence growth how will local Lawrence taxpayers afford more crime activity?

Are Lawrence taxpayers looked upon as never ending money trees? Can we say duped again?

Why is it that Lawrence residents should not be able to park on Mass Street after KU wins a NCAA game in the play off's? in fear of having their car destroyed? What's up with this?

pti3 2 years, 10 months ago

Thank you to Dr. Staples for a beautiful article. The ljworld did not accuratly report on 'apprval' of cameras downtown. That is yet to occur. The commission approved the police chief to apply for the grant for the cameras because the deadline for application was within a week or two. The commission and police chief agreed to have public meetings on cameras downtown before approval by the commission could take place. The reporting is at best sloppy, at worst, misleading.

begin60 2 years, 10 months ago

Professor Staples draws a smart distinction between privacy and the expectation of anonymity. Surveillance has a chilling effect on communication and self-expression, but apparently that is what the powers- that- be want. It makes for extremely anti-democratic public policy.

begin60 2 years, 10 months ago

According to whistle-blower Tom Drake," Security has become a state religion." Likely the same right-wing extremists inhabit both law enforcement/ government security positions and the church pews in question.

pti3 2 years, 10 months ago

I hope the cameras do not get approval, but the misrepresentation by the lj world misleads anyone who was not at the meeting to hear for themselves. Perhaps this is to prevent opposition. Professor Staples article is a much needed perspective. The cameras hopefully, will not be approved.

pti3 2 years, 10 months ago

Just to be clear, the reports by the ljworld on whether or not cameras were approved downtown were incorrect and misleading. The vote of approval was strictly for the police chief to apply for the money he wants for cameras. The commission statted in the meeting that there would be a vote later, after public meetings are held, whether to approve cameras or not. There were a number of residents who spoke against having cameras downtown including the executive director of the aclu who gave a powerful appeal against surveillance cameras. I am glad there is opposition. Maybe this can be stopped.

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