Newark’s Novel but Frightening Crime‐​Fighting Scheme

This article appeared on Washington Examiner on May 11, 2018.
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Officials in Newark, N.J., have come up with a novel and frightening crime-reduction scheme: outsourcing surveillance to anyone with an Internet connection.

Citizen Virtual Patrol allows the public to watch the livestreams of dozens of surveillance cameras across the city. If Newark's mayor gets his way, these cameras will be the first of several hundred. These cameras are unlikely to reduce crime. What's more likely is that they will establish a neighborhood panopticon manned by nosy residents thrilled at the prospect of being informants or vigilantes.

These residents, who aren't trained law enforcement officials, should be kept far away from spy cameras.

It's highly unlikely that someone casually browsing the Citizen Virtual Patrol website will witness a serious crime in progress. However, that doesn't mean that private citizens looking through these surveillance feeds won't convince themselves that they're watching potential criminals. If Citizen Virtual Patrol is fully implemented, we should be prepared for police to receive baseless calls about "suspicious" individuals who are in fact law-abiding Airbnb guests, Ivy league professors, or (ironically) police officers. Worse, residents could use Citizen Virtual Patrol as a tool for vigilantism, opting to handle suspected criminals by themselves rather than call law enforcement.

There is also the potential for these cameras to regularly record behavior that is legal but perhaps sensitive or not to everyone's liking. At least one of the Citizen Virtual Patrol cameras is right next to a mosque. Two are just outside a hospital. If the program expands, expect these surveillance cameras to keep a watchful eye over strip clubs, churches, Planned Parenthood centers, liquor stores, and Alcoholics Anonymous meeting venues.

Those who regularly visit these sites may reconsider doing so if they know they're under the constant gaze of prying neighbors and judgmental busybodies around the world. It's true that a passerby on the street could recognize anyone walking into a mosque or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but the constant surveillance Citizen Virtual Patrol makes possible would allow the curious among us to determine revealing patterns of behavior.

Even those who don't want to identify Muslims and alcoholics or keep an eye out for crimes in progress could use Citizen Virtual Patrol for nefarious ends. Possessive spouses, as well as stalkers, could use the service to keep an eye on their targets. Criminals could also use the service, using it to research potential burglary sites.

It's an unfortunate feature of modern American life that surveillance is ubiquitous, with law enforcement having access to a wide range of intrusive gadgets that are often deployed without adequate citizen oversight. This can change, with lawmakers in some jurisdictions taking steps to ensure that citizens enjoy robust privacy protections.

Yet, Citizen Virtual Patrol poses a set of challenges that go beyond those associated with governments spying on citizens. It's forcing us to confront the dangers of citizens spying on each other. Newark's residents deserve to have the opportunity to go about their lives without having to fear that vigilantes, criminals, and self-appointed guardians of virtue keeping watch.

At best, citizens watching each other with Citizen Virtual Patrol could stifle First Amendment-protected meetings and other legal activities. At worst, it could lead to unnecessary and violent vigilantism. It's one thing for officials to encourage crime witnesses to call the police, it's quite another to give citizens access to a surveillance infrastructure. Fortunately, Newark is the only city in the U.S. where this kind of citizen access to police cameras is permitted. But that could change if officials in other cities wrongly view Citizen Virtual Patrol as a program worth emulating.

Citizen Virtual Patrol isn't a solution in search of a mythical problem. At the end of last year, Newark officials announced that while homicides were at a historical low over the past decade there had been an increase in non-lethal shootings. Newark officials and residents want to live in a city with less violent crime, but allowing citizens to act as vigilantes and to snoop on one another is one proposal where the potential costs far outweigh the potential benefits.