In an effort to control crime in Old Town, Wichita is importing the police surveillance state. Right now the targeted area is a small part of the city during certain periods of time. But once camera use has started, it is likely to spread across town, especially given the enthusiasm of police and elected officials like Wichita city council member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), according to Wichita Eagle reporting.
Many people may not be aware of the gross invasion of privacy that government cameras represent. Have you used the facial recognition technology in Google’s Picasa software? It’s uncanny how accurate it is. In the hands of government, it’s a concern.
Some surveillance cameras can read car license plates two blocks away. With facial recognition technology and optical character recognition, police don’t have to actually watch the live or recorded video to learn who has been in a location. Computers can create databases, updated in real time with who is where at what time. Alerts can be programmed, so that if a person or car is seen, police can be notified.
Then, we have to wonder whether the cameras work as advertised. The website You Are Being Watched, a project of the American Civil Liberties Union, comes to this conclusion: “An increasing number of American cities and towns are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance camera systems. But few are closely examining the costs and benefits of those investments, or creating mechanisms for measuring those costs and benefits over time. There is extensive academic literature on the subject — studies carried out over many years — and that research demonstrates that video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates. Several studies on video surveillance have been conducted in the UK, where surveillance cameras are pervasive. The two main meta-analyses conducted for the British Home Office (equivalent to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security) show that video surveillance has no impact on crime whatsoever. If it did, then there would be little crime in London, a city estimated to have about 500,000 cameras.”
An irony is that law enforcement likes recording citizens, but not the other way around. As John Stossel has noted, police don’t like to be recorded. In some states its a crime to tape a police officer making an arrest. A video excerpt from Stossel’s television shows the attitudes of police towards being recorded. At Reason Radley Balko details the problem, writing “As citizens increase their scrutiny of law enforcement officials through technologies such as cell phones, miniature cameras, and devices that wirelessly connect to video-sharing sites such as YouTube and LiveLeak, the cops are increasingly fighting back with force and even jail time—and not just in Illinois. Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.”
Further irony is found in the parties promoting the cameras. Council member Williams was instrumental in crafting Wichita’s smoking ban. So too was Charlie Claycomb, president of the Old Town Association. One of their arguments was that everyone should have the right to enter any business and not be subjected to secondhand smoke. It was an argument based on civil liberties.
I’d like to be able to enjoy a cocktail in Old Town without my presence monitored and noted by the police. Is that a civil liberty worth preserving?
Wichita should reconsider this decision. It seems like an easy solution to a problem. But it’s another journey down the road of the ever-growing regulatory regime in Wichita.