Sunday, May 24, 2009

Under Surveillance

The debate in Brookline over whether or not to accept 24/7 video surveillance of our "Critical Infrastructure" as a part of the nine-community Metro Boston Homeland Security Region has been far reaching and intense. For some, the issue has brought to the fore and highlighted deep seated beliefs about the nature of freedom in a democratic society, the role of government, the nature of the "threat", the potential for mistakes and abuse, the paralyzing effects of fear and whether or not cameras add to or alleviate this effect, and the need to safeguard civil liberties.
Still others focus more prosaically on questions such as whether or not the cameras will be useful for their intended purpose, the potential for application for other purposes good and bad, the true costs now and in the future of the "system", the opportunity costs of dedicating police resources to surveillance and not other types of policing, and wondering about the possibility of a meaningful assessment of the program during the 1-yr trial period. And then there are those who simply do not wish to second guess our Police Chief.

It is this later motivation which I believe has trumped the considerations of our Selectmen so far. After all they are the ones who have to work very closely with the Chief and must rely on his cooperation and good will to "get the job done" in the exemplary manner we have come to expect. Avoidance of conflict is not, however, a good enough reason to impose a critical infrastructure with such far reaching ramifications onto the citizens of Brookline without careful consideration of all the tough questions nor without accounting for the general feelings of unease this proposition has engendered. This is after all the way we approach all other difficult decision making. Other department heads must undergo similar questioning and scrutiny without taking it either personally or holding a grudge, it comes with the territory.

What is most interesting to me is the general mindset this debate has tended to reveal, in terms of how people view the idea of Homeland Security and whether or not people have a critical skepticism about the motives and effectiveness of programs originating from the Department of Homeland Security. Some see the world in terms of all its potential dangers and seek to deploy all available tools to combat these threats, even to the point of not questioning their true efficacy, finding comfort in the fact that they have done all that they can. Their thinking runs along the lines of, "Imagine if something terrible happened and we could have prevented it, or someone may have been helped, if we had the cameras, I would never forgive myself if I was responsible for the lack of cameras." It kind of reminds me of those who wish to employ all possible life prolonging medical technology at the end of life, just in case...

On the other end of the spectrum are those whose worst nightmare is the harassment, accusation or imprisonment by the government, or police, of an innocent victim who whether or not they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time or were simply acting a bit "different" were nonetheless identified as a "suspect". The culture of fear run amok. On a more subtle level many are concerned with the general culture of conformity and suppression of freedom caused by the threat of this occurrence. For these individuals, the cameras simply heighten the general feelings of paranoia running rampant today and perpetuate the dissolution of our feelings of trust and human connection. The opposite of fostering community.

For those who see the cameras as protection, those who see danger in surveillance are seen as "crazy radicals or those who have something to hide". For those who see the cameras as a threat to civil liberties, those who see the cameras as protection are pinning their hopes on a flawed and false "techno fix" and have been duped into a dangerous mind set of trusting "government protection against unseen threats".

To me one critical fact about this question, especially as it relates to our relationship with our Police Chief is that this is a system designed and financed by entities beyond the Town. We can argue until the cows come home about whether or not cameras may or may not help solve crimes (its been pretty conclusively shown they do not prevent crime). That's not the point, because this system was designed to aid in the evacuation of Boston and everything about it, from the choice of cameras to the data system to the camera's locations have determined with that in mind. The fact that our Chief has tried to make use of the cameras for other things is commendable, but not very convincing. Repeatedly at various hearings and forums, in response to citizen's concerns about being under surveillance in public areas, the Chief has said "the cameras are simply pointing in the middle of the road". If this is the case then, how can they be truly useful for solving crimes? We have been told that the camera's are "our cameras and under our control". However, when asked if then we could locate the cameras wherever we wanted, the Chief answered no.

Had we been presented with a well designed surveillance plan arising out of a spontaneous need and developed to address specific problems in Brookline, (identified by our Police, that was not a blanket 24/7 surveillance of public areas), I believe we would be having a much different conversation. However, that is not the case. As is obvious, these cameras are not free. The decision to "refer to Committee" so very popular in Brookline is, in this case only a way to defer making a decision. The task of truly evaluating both the tangible and intangible potential costs and benefits of this system are beyond the capabilities of this and just about any other possible committee.

For many, our local crime problems could be better addressed through increased patrolling, including officers on foot or bike and better lighting, not remote surveillance. A greater police presence with face to face interaction would add to citizens feelings of safety and security.

The Chief clearly has our safety and well-being in mind, no one doubts this. He also wishes to avail himself of the latest technology and is loathe to turn down such a "gift", or to become a "non-complying" community within the consortium. However, this is a decision whose impacts have such far reaching repercussions that the burden of that decision must be borne by us. Brookline has a long history of independence and we should not be afraid to exercise that choice once more.

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