We’ve seen massive increases in technology-enhanced surveillance of targets over the last several years. From retail locations to office parks to the street, surveillance cameras have become as pervasive as street lighting is to our urban landscape. But what were once minimal turn-of-the-20th-century tools that allowed authorities to operate much more efficiently have since become full-fledged tools of oppression.
And with the introduction of body cameras and other devices, that surveillance has only become more pervasive and hostile. Citizens are unfairly targeted, and activists say they’re justified in asking for action to stem the tide of surveillance.
That’s why Assemblyman Will Harman introduced a bill in the New York State Legislature to make New York the first state to regulate the use of surveillance cameras.
“Currently, more than half of the state’s municipalities have some form of surveillance camera program,” wrote Harman in his explanation of the bill. “The use of body cameras has been problematic, in that a person’s identity can be easily recorded. More serious issues involving shooting deaths, robberies, burglaries, sexual assault, and other violent crimes, however, are continually underreported.”
Under the proposal, surveillance cameras, like all other public electronic equipment, would be subject to meaningful regulation and assessment under the Common Law, or any other applicable local or state regulatory authority.
“Consistent with the aims of the bill, by specifying in the code a list of authorized public inspection authority, the legislation will also provide for disclosures of stationing, destruction, storage and other functions, as well as the handling of surveillance footage,” explained Harman.
In addition, the bill lays out guidelines on how police officers or any other public entity with surveillance cameras may record to avoid the release of citizens’ names and identifying information. In the context of how body cameras are used, this limitation would protect the privacy of both subjects and observers and create confidence that the surveillance video is not being used or publicized inappropriately.
“The legislature needs to make it clear that local law enforcement may not unnecessarily be capturing video and/or audio of citizens in their residences.”
Body cameras, besides being an accountability measure, may also play a significant role in preventing future police shootings. According to a study by the ACLU, body cameras have successfully curbed excessive use of force by officers.
“A recent study in California shows that use of force was significantly reduced when the officers were wearing body cameras. But it should not, at a minimum, be optional.”
In other cases, evidence obtained with the use of body cameras has only served to undermine the case against the accused, like in the case of Cecily McMillan.
Even without conclusive body camera evidence, there are legitimate questions of how police use surveillance cameras. In an editorial about the proposal, Vox contended that the NYPD’s use of body cameras and the resulting transparency reveal that the application of surveillance has not improved since the devices were first used in 2012.
“Although black lives do matter in this country, the body cameras mounted to officers on the beat no longer appear to be doing much to make policing more fair or promote transparency.”
Body cameras could indeed undermine trust in our law enforcement community, especially in cases where cameras could capture evidence of misconduct, which remain underreported and virtually unaccounted for in most cases.
“If there are only two cameras going down the street at a time, how can the people who feel that they’re being watched and the police be sure that no one’s filming them?” Harman added.
Body cameras could, therefore, serve as a public sector, high-tech attempt to increase fairness, transparency, and accountability for both individuals and law enforcement. Ultimately, the legislature needs to make it clear that local law enforcement may not unnecessarily be capturing video and/or audio of citizens in their residences.
Peter Aldhous is an astute and sarcastic columnist, writer, and teacher of writing. He is also a resident of Long Island, NY, and a freelance journalist.