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Fresno Police unveil Surveillance Plan
January 10th the Fresno Police Department unveiled a plan to widely expand video policing also known as public video surveillance to the Fresno City Council. Accompanied by a Pelco representative, Captain Al Maroney and Police Chief Jerry Dyer gave a presentation regarding the proposal.
Unfortunately for the public the presentation itself provided few specifics on some of the most important issues such as the costs, effectiveness, privacy safeguards, and oversight policies for such a system. Despite the vague nature of the presentation the City Council was not eager to pry for details. Several councilmembers inquired not about the pros and cons of increased surveillance but about the No Neighborhood Left Behind grant money that had been spent on a surveillance camera in Trolley Creek Park. Even worse, the inquiries were primarily regarding the lack of similar cameras in their own districts, not about the possible misuse of public money. Nearly all councilmembers stated their support for the propsal as they concluded their questions and comments, none openly voiced opposition.
Among the Council only Councilmember Mike Dages asked specific questions pertaining to the costs and possible abuses of an expanded surveillance system. In response to questions about cost Dyer gave what he called a ballpark figure of $6000 per camera and $45,000 for setup of 48 cameras. In response to questions about the abuses of surveillance systems Dyer remarked that some cameras have built in controls and that, "safeguards must be in place" but did not go into details. In response to privacy concerns Dyer cited the unanimous support of the Police Chief's Advisory Board, "We had a very lengthy discussion and the advisory board is very diverse and it was interesting hearing the feedback...there was no one in there that was opposed to video cameras being used." Interestingly enough, Dyer's assessment differs from that of several boardmembers. When informed of Dyer's statement boardmember Gail Gaston replied, "There was no consensus or vote on whether the group did or did not support it. The full board wasn't even present."
Throughout the presentation both Dyer and Maroney lauded video surveillance as a force multiplier and an effective tool to reduce, deter, and investigate crime. The pair also sought to reassure the council and the media that surveillance technology is already in wide use throughout the world and that local law enforcement can and should be trusted with expanded surveillance powers.
Many of the assertions made by Dyer and Maroney during the workshop are debatable. For example, the premise that video policing is an effective tool to reduce and deter crime has yet to be proven. While the pair continually cited wide use of video surveillance in Europe and London in particular the facts show that video policing has met with mixed results in these locations. Two reports have concluded that British surveillance systems either did not reduce crime or only reduced it to a small degree. Researchers in the British studies also pointed out that manpower in the video control room is an important determinant of system effectiveness. Although Captain Maroney commented in a later interview that real time monitoring coupled with a sufficient number of cameras would be a necessity for an effective video policing system, both Dyer and Maroney mentioned several times throughout the workshop that they did not foresee being capable of monitoring the cameras on a continual basis. Maroney stated that the number of cameras would "depend on demand and necessity" but said an approximate number would be 200 - 250 cameras minimum.
Studies on the effectiveness of video surveillance in American cities are generally inconclusive. A study done by the Government Accountability Office on video surveillance programs in Washington D.C. characterizes evaluating the effectiveness of surveillance as difficult but further emphasizes that available studies show that results are mixed in terms of effectiveness. The California Research Bureau echoes both the British reports and the GAO report but notes that video policing systems have demonstrated effectiveness, but only on an anecdotal basis (i.e.: An auto theft is caught on camera therefore the system is effective.)
Captain Maroney was uncertain of how the Fresno Police Department would measure effectiveness but he suggested two possible means, "One way to measure effectiveness would be to measure service calls for certain crimes." Maroney mentioned that another gauge of effectiveness could be to calculate the conviction rate for suspects caught on tape.
News of a proposal to increase surveillance inevitably conjures up images of George Orwell's novel, 1984, a portrait of a surveillance state. "There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment... You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized" Orwell wrote in his classic novel. The proposed expansion of police surveillance won't usher us into a scenario identical to that depicted in 1984 but those concerned about privacy and possible abuse of surveillance powers are justified in their concern. According to the American Civil Liberties Union several forms of abuse have been cataloged in the U.S. and Britain.
In Britain researchers found that people of African descent were disproportionately surveilled by law enforcement. An investigation done by the Detroit Free Press found that Michigan law enforcement officials had used surveillance databases to stalk estranged spouses and other women and even harass motorists after traffic incidents. British researchers found that roughly 10% of women under surveillance were viewed for merely voyeuristic purposes. Another investigation found that a high ranking law enforcement official in Washington D.C. was caught using the police surveillance system and database to blackmail patrons of a gay club.
Captain Maroney admitted that any system with a human component can be abused. However he emphasized that the Police Department intends to use the system in a wise manner. "We absolutely should make it as open as possible" he said. "We don't want the public to think that we are spying on people. Those concerned about privacy should understand that we are not putting cameras in private places." Commenting further on those who object to surveillance on the basis of privacy concerns, Maroney said, "I don't want to call them ignorant but they just don't know enough yet, we need to educate them." Maroney pointed to "window blanking" technology that would make the screen go black when the camera lens passes over a window as a necessary privacy safeguard. According to Captain Bob Keyes of the Clovis Police Department which currently utilizes over 100 surveillance cameras, "window blanking" is standard on all new cameras and noted that their particular system logs what cameras are looked at by what user and when.
Even with the aforementioned safeguards abuse is still possible, the officer charged with extortion in Washington D.C. was a high ranking officer who had the capability of bypassing safeguards such as "window blanking" because of his rank, while the Michigan law enforcement officers were seldom reprimanded for their transgressions despite regulations. Maroney indicated that no policy to prevent misuse has been written yet but said that the public should have a hand in writing it. He made no indication of when this process would begin or when draft of the regulations would be available for the public. Donna Hardina, a Fresno State faculty member that is assisting in authoring a policy for the University's surveillance system noted that one aspect of any adequate policy would be a mechanism that would allow citizens to "petition for removal of cameras if they had an objection to them." Hardina also suggested that policies should be implemented that control who has access to old tapes and that oversight should be conducted by the city council
Many civil liberties advocates have argued that expansion of surveillance powers has a "chilling effect" on the exercise of first amendment rights. In the case of USA vs. Cuevas - Sanchez, the Fifth Circuit Court opinion states that, "this type of surveillance provokes an immediate negative visceral reaction: indiscriminate video surveillance raises the specter of the Orwellian State." Jacob Sullum, Senior Editor of the right-wing Reason Magazine points out in his column, "knowing that you are being watched by armed government agents tends to put a damper on things. You don't want to offend them or otherwise call attention to yourself, so you are not quite as free as you would otherwise be. After a while, people may learn to be careful about the books and periodicals they read in public, avoiding titles that might alarm unseen observers." Hardina believes that surveillance activities, undercover and otherwise at Fresno State are possibly deterring students and faculty from engaging in political action on campus, particularly if their views are controversial.