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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Wiki Approach to Police Surveillance Cameras?

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....


Greg Munno said...

The idea is both elegant and frightening.

It embraces the 2.0 mentality that information should be free, and that public spaces are, in fact, public -- in every sense of the word. Businesses can (and do) point cameras at public spaces like the Clinton Square Ice Rink, and no one would even think to complain.

But I think the time and place for such a program is not now, and not on the Near West Side.

For one, it is not a public space in the sense that Clinton Square is public, nor in the sense that the boarder with Mexico is public.

Clinton Square is defined by being a public space. The boarder with Mexico is defined by being a boarder, a divide. The Near West Side is best defined as a neighborhood. It's streets and sidewalks are open to all, of course, but they exist primarily to serve the people of that neighborhood. As such, a feed that streamed live video of the neighborhood would essentially allow outsiders to surveil the residents of the neighborhood, who are neither criminals nor visitors on an outing downtown. Secondly, the digital divide issue you raise is a substantial one that aggravates the first problem.

Still, I think this commentary is really helpful in that it frees us to examine the real issues behind the cameras. What is, specifically, the goal of the cameras, and what's the best way to accomplish it? It also provides insight into the promise and problems associated with the Web 2.0 ethos. Thanks!

Grant Reeher said...

Thanks Greg. Those are good points and underline the need--if we were going to consider this move--to have the cameras in other city locations as well. I'd think that people would tend to want to view their own neighborhoods, but the social dangers you identify are real.

The other aspect that makes the cameras on the border both easier politically and problematic in their own right is that they are for those living on the "inside" to watch and monitor activity coming from the "outside." Here, we'd be watching ourselves.

Coming down on this on one side or the other, I'd agree with you--Not to back this idea that I've floated. But I do think it brings up interesting questions.

ajlounyinjurylaw said...

My first instinct was that it was a great idea, but that would be big brother at it's finest. said...

this is great now that criminal scums are always out there waiting for the right time to struck innocent people making them aware that the police are watching would make crimes low