Police Surveillance: Good or Bad?

A recent article talks (brags) about how the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office used its surveillance cameras to catch a serial stick-up artist following a string of convenience store robberies.  The cameras and license plate readers were bought for the county using federal grant money. By October 1st 10 more cameras and 6 more tag readers are scheduled to be installed. Here’s the kicker, from an interview with a Sheriff’s Department employee:

Most of the new cameras will be on private property, such as at apartment complexes, and the property owners gave permission for the installations, she said.

“Don’t worry, citizens! Your landlords have given us permission to monitor your activities!” Oh, I should mention this bit:

[T]he sheriff’s office has allayed any “Big Brother” concerns by the fact that the cameras are overt. They have the sheriff’s logo on them, and blue flashing lights.

Add in the fact that these cameras will be deployed to “high crime” (read: poor) areas, and you get this: landlords let the police install cameras to keep tabs on their tenants, because the police just go ahead and assume that the people living there should be monitored because it’s a “high-crime” area.

Yes – surveillance cameras can do good things like catch people who are committing crimes. But they can do very bad things too. They let police and governments closely watch our daily lives. We live in a society where even minor infractions, like riding a bicycle the wrong way, can result in court fines and jail time. Do we really want to give the police the go-ahead for constant surveillance?

We have criminal codes that grow, year by year, like a cancer. We’ve created new criminal laws year after year, so much so that there is even a brilliant twitter account dedicated to tweeting out “a crime a day.” Today’s federal crime:

Historically there were several arguments in favor of doing this. Law enforcement was made up of human beings who were not constantly vigilant, and so ordinary and generally law-abiding citizens didn’t have to worry about being on the wrong side of the law. Prosecutors had “prosecutorial discretion” that allowed them to dismiss cases that had no merit for many reasons, including that the person accused of the crime didn’t deserve to be prosecuted and face a criminal penalty for a small slip-up. In some cases, it was (and is) argued, that giving the police a toolbox full of criminal laws gives them the power to charge and hold a bad person for something small while the police investigate the bigger crime (which they may not be able to prove). This is the “Al Capone” argument – without criminal penalties against tax evasion he would be free to do big bad mob boss things.

Limited police forces and prosecutorial discretion acted like a buffer, separating the public from a vast and painful array of possible criminal charges for things like selling a cherry pie with the wrong label. But the encroaching surveillance state is quickly taking away the front line of that buffer – the police and government are now ever-vigilant, watching our movements, listening to our phone calls, and reading our emails. This is leaving our fates up to prosecutorial discretion, a discretion exercised by political creatures (either elected or appointed by elected officials) who are pressured to appear “tough on crime.” Cold comfort if you ask me.

So is Tampa turning into a surveillance state? Back to the article:

The sheriff’s office doesn’t have salaries budgeted to have the cameras monitored full time, but when deputies are on light duty, such as when pregnant, they are assigned to monitor and remotely operate the cameras, which are able to rotate and zoom in on particular areas, Esquinaldo said.

Whew! It’s not like a tax-payer-funded agency hates a staffing vacuum or anything. Nope.

The move toward constant monitoring and surveillance is chilling, to say the least. It disproportionately targets poor neighborhoods. It’s the sword of Damocles, except that it hangs over the heads of the powerless.