CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, January 17, 2005

Big Brother in America's Cities: The Trend of Police Video Surveillance in Public Space

Police_cameraA few weeks ago, I posted a story about the police setting up permanent video cameras to conduct surveillance of high crime areas in Dallas.  This weekend, while doing my normal Google scans for interesting stories, I ran across a similar story about a new police surveillance system in New Orleans.  This prompted me to to run a Google search on the topic, and within 5 minutes I found articles about new police surveillance systems in public places in Washington D.C., Chicago, New York City, Honolulu, Baltimore, Newark, Tampa, Virginia Beach, Memphis, Tacoma, Hollywood, Anchorage, San Diego, Nashville and Palm Springs.  Chicago's surveillance network, which the police call "Operation Disruption," includes video cameras with gunshot detectors and microphones so sensitive they can detect when a silencer is being used to muffle gunfire.  Two months ago, Chicago spent $3 million to expand the program.  Washington D.C.'s system, which the police installed without public knowledge or approval from city council, allows an officer to zoom in on people one-half mile away with the flip of a switch.  New York City's system allows a cop to zoom in close enough to read a Broadway show ticket in a scalper's hand from 50 feet away.

The ACLU opposes this trend, and convinced the city of Oakland to drop their video surveillance program out of concerns for privacy.  Besides the obvious privacy concerns, the ACLU is worried about abuse, and points to a recent example where a tragic suicide caught on film by an NYPD camera somehow ended up on a porn site.  But police departments say the video surveillance acts as a deterrent and allows them to solve crimes after-the-fact.  They also cite to national security concerns post 9-11.  You can  read and listen to NPR stories on the subject here, which do a good job of summarizing the arguments on both sides of the debate.  Also see CrimProf Christopher Slobogin's law review article on the subject here.  [Mark Godsey]

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