It looks like New York City can only handle one debate about policing tactics at a time. How else would one explain the silence that greeted NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill’s call last week for “all public and commercial entities to install camera systems the NYPD can access, enabling us to more quickly view valuable footage and close more investigations?”
The request was embedded in an eloquent speech by the new commissioner to the Association for a Better New York in which he focused on the need to restore trust in the police, so that witnesses come forward to help the cops solve vicious crimes like the June slaying of Jessica White as she scrambled to protect her children when shots rang out in a Bronx playground.
“NYPD posters advertising a reward for information, and wanted posters showing the gunman’s getaway car, were ripped down from telephone poles, lampposts and public housing development walls” after White’s death, O’Neill reported. The commissioner argued his Neighborhood Policing Program offered a chance to bridge the gap between officers and the people they’re supposed to protect.
The chasm between cops and community is certainly serious enough for a whole speech. And there’s a complex debate around Neighborhood Policing. Depending on whom you ask, it represents an earnest and wise break from the past or merely a low-cal version of Broken Windows that will perpetuate racially skewed policing or a PR campaign by a mayor who has outsourced public safety to a coterie of civil-rights lawyers and social workers. (Guess which of those three viewpoints is a right-wing fantasy and you win a copy of Lee Greenwood‘s greatest hits.)
So the thrust of O’Neill’s speech gives the city plenty to chew over. No time to worry about the camera thing.
In an era where trust of the police is at a low ebb, however, it’s all the more stunning that the commissioner could propose a massive expansion of the network of surveillance cameras that already records many New Yorkers’ comings and goings with nary a peep of protest. A public announcement by the NYPD later in the week expanded the call to residences as well.
There was a time when the idea that one’s every move outside one’s home might be recorded seemed a little creepy. During Mike Bloomberg’s second term, off-duty cops actually sued the NYPD over a policy of videotaping protests, questioning its constitutionality. (The cops wanted the right to picket the mayor’s house over a contract dispute without ending up in some facial-recognition database.)
To be sure, not everyone had concerns about surveillance cameras back then; some enthusiastically welcomed the intrusion, just as some folks probably thought the Miranda decision or, say, the Bill of Rights was overkill. Whatever the split in public opinion 10 years ago, it seems most New Yorkers have simply grown used to seeing cameras in the deli, at the ATM, on street corners, in front of stores they have no intention or patronizing, in cabs, and on and on. We’ve all watched enough episodes of Law & Order and CSI to know just how darn useful cameras are. Right? (In real life, camera footage is sometimes helpful and sometimes not.)
But even if the growth of surveillance is inevitable, NYCLU senior staff attorney Mariko Hirose tells City Limits in a statement, it doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a more transparent and thoughtful process for weighing the value and potential pitfalls of a camera network linking one of the largest law-enforcement agencies in the world to private systems used by thousands of businesses and hundreds of public spaces.
“It’s troubling to build up a system of surveillance like this, especially with the burgeoning potential of facial recognition technology,” Hirose says. “Surveillance is a double-edged sword. As cameras multiply across the city, communities should have input into the privacy costs and law enforcement benefits of surveillance around their homes, doctor’s offices and shops.”