Rochester, NY, Mayor Bob Duffy
both cameras and data-driven law enforcement

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Critics of surveillance cameras
fear racial profiling in US cities

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

11 June 2009: Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, hundreds of US cities have installed security cameras to monitor their streets. The cameras are funded by billions of dollars from the federal Department of Homeland Security, as well as state and local revenues. Urban video security systems range from a single camera in Liberty, Kansas (population 95) to New York City’s “ring of steel” network of hundreds of integrated video devices, based on London’s ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

Debate on the merits of public surveillance in the US is generally low-key. On one side are mayors and police officials who assert that cameras help them prevent terrorist attacks, traffic accidents, and street crime. Mayors frequently note that crime rates often decrease in areas monitored by cameras. On the other side of the debate are civil liberties groups and their supporters who maintain that the technology is overly intrusive and open to abuse. They point out, for example, that public surveillance videos have ended up on the Internet.

In Atlanta, crime is the dominant issue in the current mayoral election campaign. All three leading candidates support the expansion of surveillance cameras as a way to fight crime and manage traffic gridlock. The opposing viewpoint, largely lost in media coverage of the campaign, is provided by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a national organization that advocates for individual rights. While not totally opposed to video surveillance, the ACLU, in a written statement, warns that “beyond capturing images of individuals, surveillance technology can be used to collect and store information that indicates an individual’s location and travel patterns. Once in the possession of state officials, a car’s license plate number can provide access to highly sensitive personal information.”

Technology and racial profiling
In St. Louis, Missouri – where Mayor Francis Slay is proposing the expansion of red-light cameras – black drivers were pulled over by police at a rate 22 per cent higher than their percentage of population in 2008, according to a recent report by the State of Missouri Attorney General’s Office. The report finds that white drivers in St. Louis were stopped by law enforcement 17 per cent less than their percentage of population. The report also notes that in 2003 black drivers in St. Louis were less likely than whites to be pulled over.

Studies in most US states indicate a similar trend of increasing racial disparities in police stops, searches, and arrests since 2001. For example, a study of New York City Police Department data from 2005 to 2008 by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit educational and legal organization, found that about 80 per cent of total stops were blacks and Latinos, who comprised 53 percent of the city’s population, and 10 per cent of police stops were whites, who comprised 44 per cent of the population.

Many civil rights activists and urban residents are beginning to see a correlation between the introduction of surveillance technology in US cities after 11 September 2001 (9/11) and the increase in racial profiling by local police. The problem is that “government and private industry surveillance techniques created for one purpose are rarely restricted to that purpose,” explains Jennifer Carnig of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Every expansion of a data bank and every new use for data open the door to more and more privacy abuses.”

One of the newest law enforcement models in the US is called Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS). The initiative is supported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, US Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the National Institute of Justice. DDACTS integrates location-based crime and traffic data to help police agencies deploy resources in the most effective ways. New data bases are created primarily through the use of Geographic Information Systems.

DDACTS is currently being tested in seven US cities, including Baltimore, Maryland; Nashville, Tennessee; Oakland, California; and Rochester, New York.

In Rochester, the program has become somewhat controversial. Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy, the city’s former police chief, is a strong proponent of both cameras and data-driven law enforcement. Duffy spearheaded the installation of a 50-camera wireless surveillance system in high-crime areas in 2008. He also plans to install up to 50 more traffic-light cameras this year. Duffy was instrumental in making Rochester a demonstration site for DDACTS.

The addition of DDACTS to the surveillance cameras was the last straw for a group of African-American residents.

The group, Activists Against Racism, calls DDACTS “nothing more or less than a thinly veiled dragnet/entrapment policy and practice, which is absolutely racist in nature… because we can predict with complete certainty what the overwhelming majority of the “fish” that will get caught in the dragnet will look like, i.e., very little (within the big picture of criminality) and very black.”

The group believes that Mayors Duffy’s decision to install cameras and implement DDACTS “amounts to a clear, classic case of supporting and condoning racial profiling.”

National perspective
Rochester is not the only city in which increased public surveillance has alarmed residents. In 2008, the Washington DC city council barred the mayor from accepting a federal grant to install cameras because of concerns over potential abuse. Albuquerque, New Mexico and Brookline, Massachusetts also debated the merits of surveillance cameras in very public forums.  In Albuquerque, red-light cameras became an election campaign issue for Mayor Martin Chavez who installed them, then suspended their operation due to public concerns and political pressures, and finally turned them back on again.

Generally, however, the American public accepts new surveillance cameras and data banks with few questions. The concerns raised by civil libertarians gain little public traction. A recent study sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union offers some insight into the lack of a vigorous public debate about the issues.

In 1999, according to the study, 81 per cent of Americans thought that racial profiling was wrong. Today, 67 per cent of Americans believe racial profiling is legitimate. In other words, fear of crime and terrorism, latent racism, and the American reverence for technology appear to trump respect for constitutional protections of individual privacy and civil rights when it comes to public surveillance.

Economics of surveillance
US mayors and elected officials also have an economic reason for supporting an increase in surveillance technology.

Advocates of surveillance cameras and other new data- and technology-driven law enforcement methods argue that they are a wise investment, a cost-effective equivalent of a putting a police officer on every corner that needs it. For example, in response to budget difficulties due to the national recession, New York City plans to reduce the size of its police force by 1,200 officers over the next year – while increasing the number of surveillance cameras by 500.

Traffic-light cameras are also seen as revenue enhancers in many cities. “I support [the cameras] because more than anything they raise money from people going through red lights,” said New York State Senator Martin Dilan of Brooklyn.

“We’re very supportive of it [traffic-light cameras] and have been for years,” said Peter Cutler, spokesperson for Mayor Byron Brown of Buffalo, New York. “We believe that the technology will provide greater safety in the city of Buffalo, and we also anticipate we will get additional revenues.”

Race, crime, surveillance
Race and crime are deeply associated in American society. Race is often used to define crime; both are used to define American cities. As yet, there is no evidence that new surveillance technologies will alter this dynamic.

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