Tag: camera surveillance

Called it! Eleven Years Ago

What is this blog for, if not to let Cato scholars call out what smarty-pantses they are?

The Wall Street Journal reports on automobile license plates as the “new tracking frontier.”

For more than two years, the police in San Leandro, Calif., photographed Mike Katz-Lacabe’s Toyota Tercel almost weekly. They have shots of it cruising along Estudillo Avenue near the library, parked at his friend’s house and near a coffee shop he likes. In one case, they snapped a photo of him and his two daughters getting out of a car in his driveway. Mr. Katz-Lacabe isn’t charged with, or suspected of, any crime. Local police are tracking his vehicle automatically, using cameras mounted on a patrol car that record every nearby vehicle—license plate, time and location.

I didn’t have every detail, of course, but 11 years ago I noted the coming problem of license-plate tracking in testimony to a House Transportation subcommittee.

It was a little odd at the time, and still is, to talk about the privacy problem with license plates. But the emerging technology environment makes it essential to analyze and assess more carefully the information and identification demands that the government places on us.

[T]he requirement in all fifty states that cars must exhibit license plates linked to their owners is “anti-privacy” law, as would be a law requiring people to wear name tags in order to walk on public sidewalks. Mandatory license plates prevent citizens from exhibiting the expectation of privacy that Justice Harlan wrote about in Katz. Roughly speaking, they require people to expose their identities to police as a condition of driving on our roadways.

I expanded on “anti-privacy” law in my 2004 Cato Policy Analysis, “Understanding Privacy—and the Real Threats To It.”

We’re still grappling with the problem of privacy “in public.” The Supreme Court’s decision on GPS tracking in the Jones case is the most significant recent iteration of that. (Cato brief and related blog post; pre-decision posts: 1, 2, 3; post-decision posts: 4, 5, 6.) The latest Cato Supreme Court Review (also available digitally) includes an article of mine on the case. My latest thinking on Fourth Amendment privacy can by found in Cato’s brief in Florida v. Jardines.

It is possible to think systematically about privacy. Privacy is not just a morass of feelings about advancing technologies. Once one understands privacy (in its strongest sense) as the exercise of power to control information about oneself, one can see a decade ahead that license plates create privacy problems.

Pretty smart, huh? Yeah.

Cops and Cameras: The Future of Policing

The USA Today editorial board is criticizing the use of state wiretapping laws to prosecute citizens who tape on-duty police officers. I have written on this extensively: here, here, here and here. The editorial joins the Washington Examiner and Washington Post in this critique.

USA Today’s opposing view (presented by two AFL-CIO police union officials) provides this comment:

In today’s environment, police officers have to assume that every action they take is captured on tape, somewhere. They must be comfortable that everything they say or do in the course of their duties may be shown on the 5 o’clock news.

Our problem is not so much with the videotaping as it is with the inability of those with no understanding of police work to clearly and objectively interpret what they see. Videotapes frequently do not show what occurred before or after the camera was on, and the viewer has no idea what may have triggered the incident or what transpired afterwards.

This is often true. The recordings that prompt public outcry are sometimes “gotcha” moments where the camera only captures the use of force with no context.

Here is an example from Maryland that shows officers arresting a woman during the Preakness Stakes. At the end of the video, an officer says to the person recording the arrest: “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to videotape anybody’s voice or anything else, against the law in the state of Maryland.”

As the USA Today editorial notes, this is a misreading of Maryland law that is kept alive by the prosecution of Anthony Graber and others who record the police. My commentary on the issue is here. As Carlos Miller points out, Maryland prosecutors come to different conclusions about the scope of the state’s wiretap law.

The real problem (besides the fact that the officer is misstating the law to prevent public accountability) is that the officer felt it necessary to stop the filming in the first place. This arrest was justified. The woman bleeding on the floor assaulted another patron, and when two officers responded to the incident, she assaulted them as well. This was a justified and necessary arrest. Whether the level of force was justified is another question, and one that is harder to assess because there is no recording of it.

Here is the solution – officers recording the incidents:

A handful of police departments already have their officers wearing video and audio recording devices. While I said a while ago that gun-mounted cameras are a good tool for police transparency and accountability, this head-mounted camera is a better option. It captures the prelude to the use of force, and doesn’t provide an incentive for the officer to draw his or her weapon sooner to get the event on film.

This is the future of American law enforcement. Departments will embrace this technology because it is a defensive measure against public outcry over the next “gotcha” video filmed with a cell phone and potential lawsuits. Law enforcement agencies will release their own footage of high-publicity events to show that their officers were complying with department guidelines on the use of force. The presence of a camera in an interaction between a cop and a citizen may also serve to keep behavior more civil since both parties know that the world is watching.

In 10 or 15 years, this technology will be ubiquitous just as police cruiser dashboard cameras are now, and law enforcement officers and the public will be better off for it.

Cameras, Crime, and Terrorism

The attempted bombing in Times Square brought terrorism and the capabilities of surveillance cameras to the top of the headlines this week. As I pointed out in my Politico piece, cameras have not proven an effective deterrent to terrorist attacks. Cameras are generally useful in piecing together the plot after the attack (not so much in this case, since police were looking for a middle-aged white man and not a young Pakistani male) and helped in this capacity in the Madrid, London, and Moscow commuter system bombings.

I discuss the usefulness of cameras in this podcast:

Whether cameras are helpful enough to justify massive spending to install more of them in New York is another matter. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly seems to think so, even though it’s already been the site of significant surveillance funding from the federal government. Steve Chapman remains skeptical of them, and former NYPD counterterrorism cop Michael Sheehan is honest enough to admit that their value is in investigating attacks, not deterring them. London has a million cameras, making it the most heavily-surveilled city this side of Pyongyang. Though sold on a joint counterterrorism-crime rationale, they did not deter the 7/7 bombings and roughly 80% of crime in London goes unsolved. Of the cleared cases, roughly one in a thousand is a camera success story.

As Roger Pilon points out, cameras are useful in law enforcement operations outside of blanket surveillance. They can deter excessive use of force and other unlawful conduct by police officers or at least provide a means of punishing those responsible, as they did in the recent beating of University of Maryland student. Police officers realize this, and actively deter filming their questionable activities.

A camera is an honest cop’s best friend. It can provide a defense against groundless claims of brutality. At least eleven states and 500 local jurisdictions require that interrogations be videotaped. Beyond the protection of civil liberties and preventing false or coerced confessions, these videos make for highly probative evidence. The jury gets a window into the interrogation room. The defendant’s mannerisms, demeanor, and a lack of police coercion tied to the defendant’s statements make for good, and more transparent, policing.

Put Surveillance Cameras on Police Guns, Not Street Corners

Mayor Daley of Chicago is planning to put a surveillance camera on every corner to aid first responders and deter terrorism.  As I’ve said before, cameras don’t deter terrorism, but they do satisfy the need to “do something” without really improving security.  Police officers prevent attacks with traditional investigation and intelligence gathering; cameras are only useful in picking up the pieces after the attack is done.  My colleague Jim Harper is cited in this piece that addresses their utility in more detail.  Cameras didn’t stop the 7/7 bombings in London, but they took lots of pictures of the attack (creepy Big Brother shots here).  The London police doubled down on mass surveillance, but reported that the cameras have not reduced crime.  Worse yet, the British have effectively outlawed taking photos of police officers, prompting photo protests.

Chicago isn’t the first major American city to take this route.  New York did so, as did the District of Columbia.  The cameras in D.C. have not prevented crime, and this piece makes the case that they are a waste of resources - no one can point to a prosecution that used the camera footage to obtain a conviction, and several murders have been committed within a block of a surveillance camera.

Surveillance cameras can and should play a prominent role in law enforcement - mounted on officers’ firearms.  A company is now producing a camera that attaches to the tactical rail found on modern pistols and rifles.  A New York county has invested in the technology for its officers, and their experience looks promising.  Putting a camera on the guns of SWAT officers will keep them honest and prevent falsification of evidence after the fact to cover up a mistaken address or unlawful use of lethal force.

Mayor Cheye Calvo can attest to these horrors, as detailed in a recent Washington Post Sunday Magazine cover story, this Cato Policy Report, and this Cato Policy Forum, “Should No-Knock Police Raids be Rare-or Routine?”  Click here for video - Mayor Calvo calmly captures the raw shock of having your life turn into a tactical problem for a SWAT team to solve, and he is now advocating for a Maryland state statute to mandate tracking the deployment of tactical law enforcement teams.  As Radley Balko would tell you, this is long overdue.