Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Crime Cameras Going Up On O'ahu

Don't look now, but Big Brother is coming to a paradise near you.  Camera-based crime-fighting is coming to high-crime areas on O'ahu in the next few months.  In a news conference tomorrow, the Honolulu Police Department is going to announce the start of Proj­ect PUEO ("Policing Using Electronic Observation").  The cameras are going to be placed in strategically located areas of federally designated "Weed and Seed" sites in Ewa, Wai­pahu and Kalihi/Palama/Chinatown.  Weed and Seed is a community-based strategy sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") that aims to prevent, control, and reduce violent crime, drug abuse, and gang activity in designated high-crime neighborhoods across the country.  The camera initiative in Hawai'i is aimed at deterring graffiti, illegal drinking and drugs, and illegal dumping in the "Weed and Seed" areas by monitoring and recording crimes in those areas.

I am conflicted by this news.  On one hand, if a person breaks the law, I advocate harsh and retributive justice consequences.  On the other hand, the level of government involvement in our daily lives is already absolutely ridiculous. It has gotten to the point where the police can stop you for anything they damn well please based on "anonymous tips" or police-defined "suspicious activity."  We already have traffic cameras to catch people who run red lights or exceed the speed limit with no evidence that these devices have reduced violators.  There IS evidence that there has been an increase in rear-end collisions AND increased revenue for the State.

My problem with camera-based law enforcement is the obvious risks to privacy. True, you don't have a right to privacy when you are outside or in a public place.  However, it bothers me that the government creates (largely) arbitrary laws, then places "strategic" cameras in poor, minority communities high crime areas in order to catch people "committing crimes."  On top of that, the police will be recording the activity.  How can we be sure that the subsequent footage is not going to be used to extort "criminals" into snitching on their neighbors' more illicit criminal activity that occurs in non-public areas?

I can't help but think this is the next step in a long line of oppressive government practices used to infringe on individual freedom.  This is something out of 1950s McCarthyism or Cold War-era Soviet Russia.  Make no mistake, this is the government spying on its own citizens under the guise of "crime prevention."  These cameras are meant to, among other things, "deter gang activity."  Don't forget that being in a gang is not, by itself, a crime.  Americans have a First Amendment right to associate and peaceably assemble.  What if the police, using these cameras, see a group of men hanging out in a park drinking from paper bags and decide to "investigate?"  The police roll up, ask some "general probing questions" and decide that these guys are about to rob a store or vandalize a car or whatever bullshit the cops invent?  With nothing more than camera footage of legal, but suspicious activity and subsequent harassment by the police (i.e. investigative questions), the police can hold these guys and possibly arrest them.

This isn't the only place where oppressive government security is being implemented.  In Ogden, Utah (and 20 other U.S. cities), the police are setting up a "real time crime center" to be operational soon after its Crime Blimp launches (not kidding). The center hopes to eventually be linked with the "thousands of private and government security cameras around town, including the city's own inventory of some 200 cameras." Planned at 52 feet long and 4 feet in diameter to hold a 20-pound payload of cameras, GPS gear, and telemetry, the blimp in Utah (set to be launched in April) will likely patrol the skies of an American city.

I have no doubt the police will be able to arrest people as a result of these cameras.  However, chances are the crimes for which people will be arrested are going to be petty misdemeanors.  This means no jail time, just fines.  In reality, these cameras will be used to harass minority communities and generate fine-based revenue for the State.  And they'll erode civil liberties while they do it.  I don't like it one bit.

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