The assurances that Mayor Stephanie Miner and Police Chief Frank Fowler made to cement support for the new police surveillance cameras on the Near West Side included promises that the cameras would not be routinely monitored by the police, and that the tapes would automatically be destroyed after 14 days (unless they recorded something relevant to a criminal investigation, I assume). I'm not so sure that these limits don't diminish the cameras' usefulness, but the promises were made in part to allay concerns about a "police state" directed toward certain city populations.
I'm wondering whether it might be worth considering a completely different approach to this problem--and underline here that I'm wondering, thinking on paper and throwing out an idea, not making a strong policy argument. This is intended as food for thought.
But rather than constructing narrow boundaries around access to the material, why not instead fully open it up by making the live video streams publicly available online? A similar idea was proposed a few years back in Texas by Gov. Rick Perry in order to help monitor remote stretches of private land bordering Mexico. Individual cameras were to be identified by a number, and citizens viewing the video streams could report suspicious activity by dialing a toll-free number.
Needless to say, the politics surrounding this proposal were controversial, and tapped the sensitive nerves of race and ethnicity--critics dubbed it the "virtual posse." Many of the objections voiced then were similar to those we've heard regarding the cameras on the Near West Side, and ultimately the project didn't fly.
But the approach may offer several advantages here. First, it takes the issue of police control over the information off the table, and replaces that with what is in essence a community-wide neighborhood watch program. Second, it introduces a potentially more effective preventive aspect to the enterprise, as activity leading to crime can be reported as it's happening. Third, it has the potential to help solve the resource and person-power problem embedded in using the cameras, as now the wealth of material will have enough eyes looking at it to make good use of it. Fourth, and probably most important, it allows the people who themselves live in the neighborhood, and who suffer from the increased criminal activity, to meaningfully participate in the process.
Obviously, this idea raises deep concerns of its own, and on its face, may seem to be over the top. It evokes notions of Soviet-style ratting out of fellow citizens, and raises worries about our neighbors knowing our private behavior. But remember that the cameras are installed in public places--the activity there is already observable to anyone who happens to be physically present at a given moment. And the idea is that the video stream is publicly available, not available to just a few. Taking the value of transparency seriously in the digital age suggests these kinds of approaches. We may be safer from some of the intrusions we fear by opening processes up rather than trying to control them through government authorities.
Two resource-based challenges for such an approach also come in to play, however, which in a city strapped for cash probably make the idea a non-starter. First, it would be essential to make sure that the communities where the cameras are placed have widespread access to the video streams, and that means supplying basic computer equipment and the training to use it. Concerns about the "digital divide" become front and center. Second, it would make sense to expand the number and coverage of the cameras to other city areas, so that one neighborhood wasn't singled out. Both are expensive.
Food for thought anyway....
Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.
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