Law Enforcement Increasingly Relies On Surveillance Technology

A New Jersey city's new surveillance technology comes as police increasingly use CCTV and other devices. So, is it effective?
By @katierucke |
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    NYPD Surveillance cameras. (Photo by Tom Giebel)

    (Photo by Tom Giebel)

    Is it possible to keep a city’s streets safe with fewer police officers and an increased use of surveillance technology?

    It’s a question many financially strapped cities and police departments across the U.S. are having to answer as they attempt to keep the city safe, while dealing with mass layoffs and budget cuts. One solution some police departments have come up with is the increased use of technology to help patrol and monitor city streets.

    Earlier this year, New Jersey’s Camden Police Department’s unionized officers were replaced with non-union officers, who are now known as the Camden County Police Department. In June, the new police force debuted a new piece of equipment: a mobile observation tower, known as Sky Patrol, which can be elevated to various heights.

    Equipped with infrared technology, the $135,000 apiece patrol booths can be used by officers to monitor activity in the city from as high as 40 feet off the ground. According to a local New Jersey news report, the Sky Patrol is marketed as a “portable tower” that “includes the basics for the comfort and safety of the officer inside through adjustable heat and air conditioning, tinted sliding glass windows and comfortable seating.”

    The Camden Police Department reportedly only has one booth, which was paid for using grant money and forfeiture funds.

    In addition to the Sky Patrol booth, the city has also implemented 120 cameras throughout the city and installed microphone devices known as “shot spotters” around one-third of the city to detect the sound of gunshots. The shot spotters reportedly allow officers to quickly respond to the scene of an alleged shooting.

    According to Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, the use of the new technology is working. But Mark Saunders, a retired Camden Police Detective, isn’t convinced the city can rely on technology to keep it safe, especially when there are fewer police officers out on the street.

    Wayne State police chief Anthony Holt says the increased use of surveillance technology has allowed Detroit law enforcement agencies to “identify crime hot spots” and have been able to adjust patrols accordingly to increase police visibility and prevent crime in some locations.

    The technology appears to be working. Since 2008, class A crimes — murder, armed robberies, larcenies, stolen vehicles and assaults — declined by 38 percent, Holt said. “I measure success when more businesses open up, and people are walking around at 1 in the morning.”

    Commonly known as closed circuit television (CCTV) surveillance, the increased use of cameras and microphones by U.S. law enforcement agencies has not come without its critics, who argue that like drones, technology doesn’t have the discretion a human officer has.

    For example, speed cameras have sometimes issued tickets to drivers who were driving below the speed limit. To fix the issue, some cameras were programmed to allow people to drive at a speed slightly above the limit.

    But according to Lisa Shay, a U.S. Army colonel, who was given a speeding ticket despite driving below the speed limit, there is “no amount of coding” that can allow a camera to “evaluate a situation the way a human can,” adding that “Machines don’t have much compassion for people rushing to the hospital or to help a friend in need.”

    While some of the surveillance cameras in use by law enforcement agencies are monitored by a person in real time, many systems record the footage and then have an operator scan through some of the footage at a later time. More advanced surveillance systems have limited facial recognition technology and the ability to estimate the location of an alleged gun shot, but most do not.

    In a report on the use of video surveillance of public places, the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing writes that the use of CCTV is increasingly seen as “Big Brother” invading Americans privacy rights, even though the technology was initially introduced as a way to “de-motivate” potential offenders.

    States the report, “In the United States, privacy issues related to the use of CCTV surveillance are first and foremost in regard to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects a citizen from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement and other government agencies. The emphasis is on the protection of people, not places.

    “As a result, at least in terms of clearly public places, citizens cannot have an expectation of privacy. Surveillance of individuals in public places would therefore appear to be constitutionally acceptable.”

    The report highlights that the use of technological devices should be viewed as a way to “enhance the natural ability of vision and hearing police officers could employ on the street if they were there in person,” and points out that X-ray technology would likely be a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

    According to the report, this type of technology doesn’t break up crime, it is only able to capture it. “Although a CCTV system may reduce the likelihood of burglary at a commercial location within the range of the camera, there is some evidence that drug markets can continue operation in the presence of CCTV by changing their operating practices.

    “For example, at one location some offenders met and discussed business in the cameras’ presence, but concluded the transaction at another site. In other CCTV areas, however, drug crime that could not successfully relocate or adapt to the cameras was eradicated.”

    When it comes to aiding police with their investigations, the report says, the technology can be valuable, and points out several examples where CCTV tapes helped law enforcement convict a person and identify potential witnesses.

    Whether the technology is useful is debatable, as the report points out that while ever-increasing surveillance can make the local environment a less pleasant place to live, it may also reduce fear of crime and increase public participation in public space.

    But some academics have cautioned that the increased use of surveillance may lead to the erosion of citizens’ constitutional rights, as law enforcement and the government have argued that Americans should be willing to give up some rights for the sake of national and personal security.

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