New Yorkers enjoying a day in Central Park may soon be smiling for more cameras than they are aware of. The police may be joining friends and relatives in taking their pictures. Despite a three-year, 38 percent decline in crime in New York City, and despite Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's boast that Central Park "is probably the safest urban park in the United States,"the NYPD is considering placing surveillance cameras there, as well as in other city locations. A police department spokesman says it's just one of many crime-fighting measures being considered at the behest of the police commissioner, with the support of the mayor. And, one could add, to the likely indifference of most citizens to the invasion of their privacy.
At a February 4 press conference, Police Commissioner Howard Safir announced his plan to begin placing surveillance cameras (in the form of closed-circuit TV) in several locations throughout the city, primarily in housing projects and subways. By mid-summer, reports The New York Times, Giuliani and Safir will decide whether to expand the surveillance program.
And while Safir was oblique about the number and location of cameras to be deployed, one thing is certain: New York is only the latest in a growing number of cities across the country and around the world whose citizens are having their every public move monitored, recorded, and analyzed by law enforcement officials and private security.
Following the lead of Great Britain--where several hundred localities already monitor and record everything from cars driving the wrong way on one-way streets to random faces in a crowd--cash-strapped municipalities are lining streets, sidewalks, boardwalks, and subways with surveillance devices in place of police.
As these cameras get smaller and cheaper, they are also getting more sophisticated. Many cameras already pan and tilt 360 degrees, have zoom lenses capable of reading a cigarette package at 100 meters, and come equipped with infrared sensors, motion detectors, bullet- proof casing, and small wipers in case rain or snow blurs their vision.
In addition, high-tech listening devices, designed to detect and pinpoint gunfire, are now being attached to street lights in some high-crime residential areas. Display ads for these devices appear in the pages of such journals as Law Enforcement Product News; the companies offering them constitute an industry that is already worth $2.4 billion, according to the market research firm STAT Resources, and is growing fast.
While private-sector surveillance is commonplace and widely accepted--recording devices are ubiquitous in and around malls, airports, banks, ATMs, elevators, and parking garages--the trend of placing cameras in public areas for use by law enforcement is a new and disconcerting variation on the established practice. Its utility in crime reduction has yet to be convincingly demonstrated; its morality has yet to be explored in open public-policy debate.
Placing cameras in the public square is usually supported by businesses and residents whose neighborhoods are plagued by drug- and gang-related violence. Support from the business community, for example, was instrumental in starting Baltimore's Video Patrol Program, the largest such undertaking so far in the United States. There, 16 cameras enclosed in elongated cases resembling mailboxes monitor the downtown Lexington Market area. Camera images are fed into a central kiosk where they are watched around the clock. The Baltimore Sun endorsed the program, asserting optimistically that "there is no reason to believe the machines will be used to impinge on people's civil liberties."
Baltimore's experiment, begun in January 1996, hasn't gone unnoticed: "Sixty-five cities have called me who are looking to set up their own surveillance cameras,"says Frank Russo, public safety director of the city's Downtown Partnership. Among them: New Orleans, Cincinnati, Honolulu, and Portland, Oregon. The Baltimore police have even compiled an information packet about the program.
Similarly, residents of Tacoma, Washington's inner-city Hilltop neighborhood formed the Hilltop Action Coalition to combat the drug dealers, gang members, and prostitutes congregating in their streets. The coalition's director, Darlena Gray, says that residents would ask at block meetings why they couldn't use cameras to discourage crime in their neighborhood the way many business owners use cameras to prevent shoplifting. Because the community overwhelmingly backed such a measure, Gray sought and received a federal grant from the Department of Justice for the six cameras currently in operation.
Three minutes away from the camera locations, at a Tacoma police substation, officers can control the cameras with toggle switches and watch the displayed images on a pair of color monitors. An officer will see crimes in progress on the station house monitors and relay the description of the suspects to officers already in the area, who quickly apprehend them. This system works extremely well, considering that the cameras aren't hidden. According to Tacoma police, drug dealers know they are being watched--occasionally they wave at the camera.
Gray says Hilltop residents are supplementing cameras with other measures to take back control of their neighborhood-- from new fences to strategic lighting--and don't find the cameras intrusive. She says their neighborhood was so ravaged with drug- and gang- related violence before the cameras came that residents couldn't even drive down certain streets, and they welcome the change.
Back in Baltimore, some residents are also trying to bring cameras into their neighborhood. And that has alarmed Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Maryland chapter. She finds the Supreme Court's privacy standard--that your privacy is not violated unless you have "an expectation of privacy" --insidious because it allows what she calls "a creeping invasion."When residents invite cameras into their communities, for example, they certainly no longer "expect"privacy, so there is little basis for a legal challenge should anyone object later.
Goering fears that people are too willing to cede their rights for a modicum of security, and she is concerned that surveillance measures might be abused. Law enforcement might be tempted to use surveillance for other purposes, she suggests, like videotaping people at a peaceful demonstration or rally. They might also suspect you of a crime simply because your image is picked up in a neighborhood with a known drug trade.
Defenders of hidden-camera law enforcement argue that blanketing streets with such devices is no different from having a cop on every corner. Many legal experts claim there is no genuine expectation of privacy in public areas, so the legality of state-sponsored surveillance does not even arise.