Public Surveillance vs. Public Safety

by David Bedell
This article was originally published in the Stamford Advocate

Readers probably remember Flight 93. That was the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania because a few brave passengers armed only with cell phones did what none of our government security and intelligence agencies could do - they succeeded in foiling the plot to destroy the U.S. Capitol.

But do they remember Kitty Genovese? She was the woman, now lying buried in New Canaan, whose 1964 rape-murder in a Queens apartment complex led to a New York Times investigative report, "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police." The story inspired public outrage and the creation of neighborhood watch programs and emergency 911 service in cities across the country.

Decades later, experience has proved the most effective crime prevention programs are ones like these, which connect the police with the communities they serve: Neighborhood Watch, 911, Block Watch, Weed and Seed, community policing, cops on bikes, local police substations.

Smart technology can enhance these efforts. In his 2007 State of the City address, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans for a "revolutionary innovation in crime fighting": New York will be the first city in the world to equip 911 call centers to receive digital photos and videos submitted by citizens using cell phones and computers.

What about Stamford? Instead of creating innovative and powerful partnerships between police and residents, our Board of Representatives recently authorized closed-circuit TV cameras throughout the city that will feed surveillance videos into a room at Government Center, where anonymous police officers will sit and watch like Big Brother.

Will the camera operators be secretly tracking people and gathering evidence to use in court? Maybe, but from the numerous documented cases of abuse in other cities, it is more likely that a bored officer will be panning the cameras to follow attractive women, or zooming in on couples engaged in intimate behavior. The effectiveness for crime prevention is dubious.

The National Black Police Association says: "Camera surveillance funds could be better spent to hire and promote additional officers, and training them to work cooperatively with the public they serve."

Retired Marine intelligence officer and CIA agent Robert David Steele says we would be safer if we opted for less secrecy and more of what he terms Open Source Intelligence: "The threats we face don't lend themselves to pre-planned, centrally controlled government direction. Only a nation in which each citizen is both a collector and consumer of intelligence, able to share information adequately and in real time, will survive the tribulations to come."

So instead of surveillance cameras, let's have more cops on the beat interacting with residents. Let's have more support for our school crossing guards. They know more about problems in the neighborhood than anyone and are a lot smarter and friendlier than cameras.

Let's have pedestrian-friendly urban design. If people simply walked more, they would see the city from a different perspective, and street crime would plummet.

Let's have more outreach and opportunities for young people, not a bunker mentality in City Hall that treats citizens as objects for suspicion and spying.

Let's put the "public" back in public safety.

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