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Central New York Chapter Urges Syracuse Lawmakers to Address Privacy Concerns, Seek Public Input on Surveillance Plan

Central New York Chapter Urges Syracuse Lawmakers to Address Privacy Concerns, Seek Public Input on Surveillance Plan

At a public hearing in Syracuse on Sept. 21, Chapter Director Barrie Gewanter urge the city’s Common Council to initiate a formal public review process before moving to install a 24-hour video surveillance system in the Near West Side neighborhood.

The proposal calls for the initial installation of nine surveillance cameras on utility poles in the Near West Side. It would be paid for with a $125,000 federal grant. The proposal is being a termed as a pilot program, meaning the use of surveillance cameras could be expanded to additional neighborhoods.

In her remarks (link to attached statement), Gewanter urged local lawmakers to:

  • subject the proposal to vigorous public debate including public hearings in the effected neighborhood before moving to install surveillance cameras;
  • provide the public detailed information on how the cameras will be operated, what they will record, how surveillance data will be stored and who will have access to it;
  • adopt clear rules and procedures for retention, storage and destruction of surveillance recordings, and to limit access to and dissemination of such recordings;
  • conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine if this surveillance camera program would be likely to deter or prevent violent crime, or if this $125,000 in federal funds should be utilized for other law enforcement approaches more likely to meet this goal.

The effectiveness of surveillance in preventing crime is debatable. A 2008 report by the University of California Berkeley on San Francisco’s video surveillance system concluded that the system’s 68 cameras had no effect on burglaries, car theft or violent crime. Instead, the recordings from these cameras were more useful in investigating crimes after the fact. There is little or no evidence from other studies in the U.S. and the U.K. that surveillance cameras deter or prevent crime.

Statement of Barrie Gewanter for Sept. 21, 2010 Common Council Hearing on Police Surveillance Camera Proposal

I come before you today as a representative of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York State Affiliate of the ACLU. We have some concerns about the proposal to implement this police surveillance camera program in Syracuse neighborhoods.

Any policy that so dramatically change the nature of public space must be subject to rigorous public debate before it is implemented. I find it problematic that this item was placed on the Council agenda before there was any public discussion of the nature and implications of this step into 24/7 police surveillance of a city neighborhood. I am glad that an initial public discussion is happening now. But tonight’s discussion is not adequate to allow the public to consider and respond to this proposal, or for residents of the neighborhood initially selected for this surveillance program to have a meaningful opportunity for input and dialogue with police and city officials.

The public needs more information about the capabilities of these cameras or the way in which they will be utilized. There has yet been little or no public information from the police or Common Council about these important questions about how these cameras will be used and by whom:

  • What these cameras will actually record. Will they record only visual images or will they have the capacity to record audio as well?
  • How far away are these cameras able to record focused images? Will they be able to be directed to record activities or locations one block away, two, further?
  • Where will these cameras be initially focused in general operations? Will they be recording activities on the street, on sidewalks, in the front yards of residents?
  • Will these cameras be recording 24 hours, seven days a week? If so, will there be a Syracuse police officer viewing these images and operating the cameras in real time? If not, then who will be authorized to do so?
  • Under what circumstances will Syracuse officers be allowed to utilize these cameras, and to manipulate their direction and focus? Under what circumstances would they be allowed to focus the attention of these cameras on individuals or groups on foot, in vehicles, on private property, in private homes?
  • Will any other law enforcement agencies be permitted to operate these cameras or to view images in real time? If so, what local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies will be allowed to do so and under what circumstances?
    There has yet been no information from the police about important questions about how the recordings will be used, such as:

  • How will the captured images and or audio recordings be stored?
  • As the cameras will be presumably controlled over an internet connection, the images transmitted to police headquarters over an internet connection and then stored in a digital format, what safeguards will be in place to ensure that the cameras and recordings are not accessed remotely by individuals or entities not authorized to do so?
  • How long will recordings from these cameras be stored and in what manner?
  • At what point will recordings not required for an active investigation be purged from the system? Who will make the decision as when a particular recording is to be retained, and under what circumstances?
  • Under what circumstances will Syracuse officers be allowed to access to these recordings, and under what circumstances?
  • If so, what local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies will be allowed to do so and under what circumstances?

If the police cannot yet provide clear answers and written policies and procedures for review, then this so called “Criminal Observation and Protection System” (COPS) should not be allowed to go forward. My organization would prefer that many of these questions be discussed and addressed through legislation enacted by the Common Council before this police surveillance program is allowed to move forward. I hope that you will consider this, and provide additional opportunities for public dialogue to guide its creation.

Such legislation should also create mechanisms to address the privacy implications of this technology. Evidence from other municipalities around the US and Europe clearly demonstrate that such technology has been misused and abused in ways unrelated to police operations. This includes examples where officers have utilized cameras and/or recordings to track and spy on individual women (UK), track romantic partners or estranged spouses (Detroit), to watch couples engaged in intimate contact (NYC), to track down and threaten motorists (Detroit), and to gather information for use in blackmail of gay nightclub patrons (DC). I do not want that to happen here.

Studies have also demonstrated that surveillance camera operators disproportionately target women and racial/ethnic minorities. A study at a university in the UK showed that young black males were 1 ½ to 2 ½ times more likely to be targeted by police cameras. Given that the police have selected a high minority neighborhood with a high percentage of Spanish speakers as the first neighborhood to be subjected to camera surveillance, I think that this potential for such selective law enforcement use of this technology needs to be addressed before this program goes forward.

The Syracuse Police view this as a crime prevention measure. However, there is little or no credible evidence that video surveillance cameras deter or reduce violent crime. I suggest that surveillance cameras on utility poles above a neighborhood are not a legitimate surrogate for police presence on the ground in that neighborhood. Accordingly, there should be a frank examination of whether this is the most effective use of the $125,000 in federal funds to deal with the incidence of violent crime. There is a high level of very legitimate community concern about the level of gun violence on the West Side. I live on the West side, on Bellevue, a few blocks from where a recent confrontation led to a man’s death by gunfire, and many nights, I drive home through Kirk Ave and Kirk Park. However, as a resident I want to know that the city and its Police Department are employing the most effective approaches to address the danger of gun violence.

Research studies carried out in the US and the UK between 2000 and 2008 clearly demonstrated that video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates. (See A more recent 2008 study in San Francisco found no evidence that police surveillance cameras had an impact on violent crimes in high crime areas. That study did demonstrate a reduction in lesser crimes against property. Within 100 feet of camera locations, felony property crimes did fall 24 percent, especially those in which people, homes and cars had been targeted. However, researchers there concluded that the San Francisco surveillance program failed in its primary goal of reducing homicide and other violent crimes, which are “often committed outside the bounds of rationality.” Researchers stated that violent incidents did “not decline in areas near the cameras relative to areas further away” and researchers observed “no decline in violent crimes occurring in public places.”

The reality is that surveillance cameras are most useful in investigating crimes after they have occurred. Researchers in San Francisco found that “… more often footage is helpful in establishing a sequence of events for a crime or placing witnesses at a scene.” However, that is not the stated purpose of this surveillance program. Additionally, given the visibility of the proposed cameras, persons set on pursuing criminal activity may simply take steps to avoid the focus or view of these cameras. The public and the Council should also consider that the persons perpetrating these types of crimes against property may simply shift their activities to target residents another neighborhood or section of the city, and perhaps making law enforcement intervention more difficult.

Finally, it is a basic tenant of American freedom, that we are not be placed under law enforcement surveillance unless and until we are suspected of some type of criminal activity. This kind of 24/7 police surveillance of a residential area runs counter to this essential feature of a free society because it treats all under the camera’s eye as suspects or potential suspects. Absent real suspicion of criminal activity we should be left alone without government monitoring of where we go, who we visit, who we speak to, or how we interact with others in our communities. This is basic in the preservation of our First Amendment as well as Fourth Amendment rights.

This takes me back to my first comment about a policy that would dramatically change the nature of our public spaces. This proposal seems to have advanced very quietly and rapidly. It is also billed as a pilot program, with the obvious potential for enhancement and expansion of the capabilities and placement of these cameras in other areas and neighborhoods in this city. So I ask you to slow down, engage in more careful consideration about the implications of this step – beyond the cameras we already have watching us at banks, ATMs, stores, buses and in some public parks. I ask you to ensure that there are clear and reliable safeguards in place before this proposal goes forward. And I ask that you provide ample opportunities for meaningful information, input and dialogue with the residents of any neighborhood that is selected for such 24/7 police camera surveillance. This should start in the Near West Side at times and locations accessible to the residents of that neighborhood.

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