Lancaster, California Rolls Out Law Enforcement Surveillance Tech The Right Way — By Involving The Public
from the you-know,-the-little-people-who-pay-your-salaries dept
Recently we covered another example of law enforcement’s “deploy first, check with public later” attitude towards new surveillance technology. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Dept. had partnered with Persistent Surveillance Systems to keep an eye on the entire city of Compton utilizing a plane armed with a cluster of high-powered cameras. Rather surprisingly, the LASD offered no defense of its decision to run this by the public it serves. Instead, it simply informed the public that their input was hardly conducive to its widespread surveillance plans.
“The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public,” (LASD Sgt.) Iketani said. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush.”
That’s the LASD’s public-facing policy, apparently. If it thinks you might have a problem with new surveillance, it just won’t tell you until after it’s in use. On the bright side, the powerful cameras aren’t quite powerful enough… yet. This pilot program has been discontinued, not out of privacy concerns, but because the resolution just isn’t high enough to be useful.
The cameras, despite a total 192 million pixels of resolution, sweep such a wide area that each individual appears as a single pixel – not nearly discerning enough to detect race, sex or other distinguishing characteristics, [Persistent Surveillance Solutions president Ross] McNutt said.
In its stead, the LASD is rolling out more cameras at ground level.
Compton rejected the aerial observation, in part, because it had already been satisfied with the results it got from video cameras it had installed in nine city parks, said City Manager Harold Duffey. The 15 cameras helped thwart crime enough that the city is in the midst of planning a program to install about 75 cameras along major thoroughfares at a cost of $2.7 million.
The previously-installed cameras were deployed as yet another excuse for not telling the public about the high-flying camera cluster.
“Citizens weren’t notified because cameras were already installed in Compton on the ground,” said Nicole Nishida, a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman.
Got it. Any new surveillance tech can now be rolled out without notifying the public because surveillance tech already exists. Perhaps the new camera system is being installed by Recursive Surveillance Solutions.
But it doesn’t have to be handled this way. Obviously, law enforcement is like nearly every other entity: the path of least resistance is usually the one most traveled. If cutting out the public means deploying the technology you’d like to have in place, then all apologies and privacy considerations can be handled weeks, months or years down the road. As the DOJ itself has stated, civil liberties are nothing more than Get Out of Jail Free cards for criminals.
Lancaster, CA also instituted some new aerial surveillance. But the city decided a more open process might be welcomed by those on the receiving end of law enforcement’s new capabilities.
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said that the city was happy with its system and that alerting the public led to more acceptance.
“Initially, there was a lot of concerns of Big Brother in the sky. But now the feeling is it is reassuring when it is up there. People got quite upset when it was down for a time for technical problems,” he said.
“It’s important to be as transparent as possible with these decisions,” he said.
Lancaster’s system covers a much narrower area and is only deployed by local law enforcement under certain conditions. It’s not persistent and is usually deployed to accidents or crime scenes. This limited scope and usage is likely a direct result of including the public as stakeholders in their own surveillance. The natural tendency of law enforcement is to gravitate towards a wider scope and fewer limitations.
Cutting the public out may have resulted in something more resembling Compton’s pilot project. Instead, it became a system many of the citizens view as useful, helpful and at least indirectly related to their safety. The only way Lancaster can lose now is if the Sheriff’s Dept. abuses its technology. But it’s less likely to do so now that it’s had public input, a process that humanizes those who have concerns about persistent surveillance. It ensures they are treated with more respect, rather than just assumed to be either a.) criminals or b.) crazy.
This also works in the other direction, humanizing those deploying the surveillance, most of whom are probably good people who just want to do their job well. Transparency does truly work both ways, and those charged with protecting the public are better off having them on their side, rather than simply pushing forward with pervasive surveillance and generating more antagonism.