Editorial: Privacy, safety and quality of life

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The Worcester Police Department Camera Collaborative was announced on June 9. In a little more than three months since businesses and private citizens could register their video cameras with the police department, more than 1,000 camera have been registered.

What do we make of this?

Even in an era when your cellphone broadcasts its location nonstop, your car navigation system remembers where you’ve been, and your computer at work shows you ads for products you searched for on your home computer, the prospect of the police having video of you taken by your neighbors and local businesses surely would be a tipping point.

It’s not that simple, not by any measure.

While some private citizens and business have allowed the police direct access to their cameras so they can be viewed in real time, the Camera Collaborative at its roots is little more than a spreadsheet of camera owners and their locations. If a crime is reported and a camera is close, the police ask the owner of the camera to view the video.

There are many perspectives to consider when reflecting on surveillance camera proliferation.

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There are many perspectives to consider when reflecting on surveillance camera proliferation.

This means, as the police and city leaders have made clear, the Camera Collaborative is not the government partnering with citizens to spy on other citizens.

Indeed, there are reported instances of precisely this type of post-hoc analysis.

Since June we’ve spoken with many people, on the record and off, and support for this program is nearly unanimous.

As our reporting today makes clear, privacy is neither the main concern nor the secondary concern. Safety and quality of life are the concerns not only of those who have registered cameras but also those supporting this program.

In just three months, the community has spoken loudly and clearly in favor of this program.

And we agree.

When well-meaning residents band together in this way, they are taking an active role in improving their neighborhoods. This is laudable. If self-governance means anything, it stands for the people’s right to set community standards that work to improve their lives.

Equally laudable is the sensitivity with which the city government and police department appear to be treating privacy concerns.

We caution residents to be vigilant in urging the police department to reaffirm its commitment to using these cameras only as it has pledged to. We see far too often government agencies — federal, state and local — break pledges, betray trusts and abuse the system.

Support for this program should not be unqualified, however.

We caution against a false sense of security. Because the program has been under way for such a short time, it is not clear if the Camera Collaborative will be an effective deterrent in the long term. Some in other cities already question the efficacy of increased video surveillance. Perhaps the only guarantee they offer is that using cameras to catch criminals after the fact makes it less likely that person can commit another crime.

We must also be aware of the deleterious effect cameras can have on the community. As Chris Robarge, the Central Massachusetts coordinator of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Sun recently, camera networks “create a culture of distrust that has negative consequences for the fabric of a community. Having cameras pointed at you everywhere does not make people feel safe. It says, ‘This is a dangerous place. You are being watched and everyone is being watched.’”

Moreover, we caution residents to be vigilant in urging the police department to reaffirm its commitment to using these cameras only as it has pledged to. We see far too often government agencies — federal, state and local — break pledges, betray trusts and abuse the system.

In the end, camera collaboratives such as those in Worcester can bring together the community in a positive way by increasing their engagement with the police and among themselves. However, it is not a panacea.

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