Cover story: Smile! You’re on someone’s camera

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Imagine a silent documentary of your life from the minute you walk out of your home to begin your day.

Daily video records of your morning coffee run, trip to gas up the car, entry into your workplace, and your time on the clock. Cameras record you leaving for a meal break and coming back from it, the rest of your workday, your walk to the car or the bus or train station at the end of the day, and your trip home. If you decide to go anywhere afterward, cameras record that, too, along with your weekend itinerary.

You don’t have to imagine that kind of surveillance in Worcester. It’s already here.

The city is building its surveillance power by adding a network of private cameras to its expansive public safety system.

Courtesy Worcester Police Department

The city is building its surveillance power by adding a network of private cameras to its expansive public safety system.

The Worcester Police Department Camera Collaborative, working through local neighborhood associations and the Worcester PD mobile app, is compiling a list of private cameras throughout the city that scan parking lots, sidewalks, streets and parks, and now number more than 1,000. That’s on top of a network of more than 1,000 city cameras installed and monitored by the city.

A press release about the program reads in part, “Providing your local law enforcement agency with the location of your security camera empowers them with the information needed to catch criminals faster, and since you own the camera, your participation always remains 100 percent voluntary.”

So far, the program has been a hit with neighborhood watch groups.

“The police are aware that there’s a camera and they can go back and look at the tape if the property owner allows,” said Casey Starr, a community organizer with the Main South Community Development Corporation. “The police will not have access to the cameras. No one is looking at these cameras during the day.”

It all seems innocent enough, but is it really?

“It’s one thing to use security cameras to document high-profile public events, a road race or parade,” said Chris Robarge, the Central Massachusetts coordinator of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “When law enforcement and private corporations and private people start working in concert to network cameras together for a long string of time, that starts to become a sort of concerning trend.”

Concerning enough that the ACLU nationally has made a campaign of opposing camera networks by publicizing a number of studies that show they do not reduce crime and that the attention paid to them is a waste of law enforcement time.

In particular, the ACLU raises questions about the Fourth Amendment right of privacy and First Amendment freedom of speech. Its report on camera surveillance describes these thorny issues:

“Even if the Fourth Amendment protection is not triggered by simple video monitoring in public places, the First Amendment could be. Fear of surveillance can also implicate First Amendment freedoms of speech and association and freedom to assemble by chilling speech and activity. These rights are as fundamental as any rights to American democracy.”

smile_camera_flickrThe report also notes unintended consequences of heavy camera surveillance in urban settings. In Baltimore, street gangs started working parts of the city outside of any camera eyes.

The New York Civil Liberties Union noted “potential for abuse, including a racial disparate impact and specific risk of harassment invasive surveillance poses to individuals wearing skirts and blouses.” The ACLU of Illinois floated the possibility of “improper release of video by employees, and racial disparities in targeting.”

Nevertheless, the Worcester camera database is growing without substantial pushback.

And why would there be any? It sounds safe and reasonable, and the private cameras are not to be monitored by police unless there is an incident they want to investigate. A handful of private camera owners are allowing streaming at police headquarters, but the large majority of them are available only upon request by police and with permission of the owner.

Just last week, a 22-year-old city man was charged by police with assault and battery on a person over 60 years old, negligent driving, and moving violations after video was obtained of an Aug. 29 road rage incident through the city’s camera collaborative.

Surveillance footage showed the driver “deliberately struck” the older man, who was riding a bicycle, police said. The incident escalated, with the driver chasing after the cyclist, 62, who had placed his hand on the hood of the car to steady himself at a traffic light, according to the Telegram & Gazette.

“I can appreciate where some people could have concerns about their privacy if they were at home or in the backyard and wouldn’t want people watching that. But I don’t know if people fully understand that whenever they leave the house, they are being fully monitored whether they know it or not.” — Paul Gunnerson, president, Tatnuck Neighborhood Association

From the aforementioned city press release: “By enrolling in this program, investigators will be able to pull up a map showing registered cameras with the owner’s contact information. If a crime occurs in an area that has registered cameras, investigators will be able to click the camera icon on the map which will show the contact information along with the direction your cameras are pointing. Your cameras will not be streaming to the police department. If the police believe your cameras may have captured a crime, we will then contact you. Your information is kept safe and secure, never made public. Only local law enforcement can see it.”

Sgt. Kerry Hazelhurst, WPD information officer, said the police will  make copies of the footage on site, if necessary.

Paul Gunnerson, president of the Tatnuck Neighborhood Association, says he feels safer with the camera program in place. And he has seen it in action.

While having breakfast at a local diner recently, he watched as a police officer entered and asked to see security camera video footage from the previous night. A crime had been committed and the officer believed the diner’s camera would have recorded the perpetrator.

After 15 minutes viewing the surveillance on a laptop, the officer said, “OK, this is exactly what we’re looking for. We got such a good look at this guy and we know who it is.”

“I can appreciate where some people could have concerns about their privacy if they were at home or in the backyard and wouldn’t want people watching that,” Gunnerson said. “But I don’t know if people fully understand that whenever they leave the house, they are being fully monitored whether they know it or not.”

Robarge is critical of another aspect of that monitoring: the use of automatic license plate readers by police at locations on Lincoln Street and Kelley Square. Robarge would have preferred that the $25,000 in state grant money that paid for the cameras be used for something else, perhaps equipping police with body-worn cameras.

“The police department and (city) manager said the license plate readers will not be used for enforcement or for tickets, but they didn’t explain what they are going to be using them for.”

Mark Roche, deputy chief of investigations, said police keep the plate data for a year, as state law allows. Legislation sponsored this year by the ACLU would reduce the holding time to 14 days, the same time period Somerville and Brookline use with their license plate tracking. The ACLU legislation would ban the use of license plate data for purposes of marketing, insurance rate setting, employment decisions, and credit determination. The ACLU notes that Boston suspended its program in 2013 after accidentally releasing data about locations and plate numbers of 68,000 scanned vehicles.

“It all becomes a pretty substantial dragnet that the city is putting out that wasn’t here a few years ago. I think that the police department thinks this is what community policing is. Instead of volunteer deputy camera watchers, I wish they would go out and talk to people in the community and build a trust that has been lacking.” — Chris Robarge, Central Mass. ACLU leader

City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. has promised that the data from license plate readers in Worcester will be used only to solve major crimes and not for generating revenue.

“I’m totally sensitive to that,” Augustus said of the equilibrium he believes must be maintained between legitimate crime fighting usage of all the new technology and the public’s right to privacy. “It’s like everything we do. It’s a balancing act.”

But to be clear, the ACLU is not in favor of license plate tracking for any reason. From its online report of the increasingly widespread practice: “The tracking of people’s location constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about their lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events or churches a person may visit.”

“It all becomes a pretty substantial dragnet that the city is putting out that wasn’t here a few years ago,” Robarge said. “I think that the police department thinks this is what community policing is.

“Instead of volunteer deputy camera watchers, I wish they would go out and talk to people in the community and build a trust that has been lacking.”

Sometimes police will admit that camera surveillance doesn’t work.

A proliferation of surveillance cameras has not always led to a reduction in crime.

Wikimedia Commons

A proliferation of surveillance cameras has not always led to a reduction in crime.

Earlier this year, Lincoln, Nebraska, Police Chief Jim Peschong said “recordings hadn’t helped investigators either identify new suspects or bolster evidence against current ones.”

“Peschong also stated that the cameras hadn’t lowered crime in their vicinity,” according to an ACLU report, which added that a growing number of government officials were publicly stating that mass surveillance efforts were failing to reduce crime.

The Lincoln Police Department approached the Nebraska ACLU two years ago for recommendations on installing cameras in its downtown area. The ACLU recommended against it.

Even if the value of camera surveillance can’t be quantified as a positive, Gunnerson believes there is valid reason to have them. The diner incident that he happened upon would be one example. Another would be when vandals desecrated the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Security camera footage led to the arrest of the perpetrators. And, of course, anyone would use the arrest of the Boston Marathon bombers, who were identified based on footage from a private security camera, as an example. Even Robarge and the ACLU acknowledge that.

But the larger question of a creeping, post-9/11 security state is what they and other opponents of camera networks are after.

“People who opt into a program like this have often not had negative experiences with the police department,” Robarge said. “Camera networks do not make communities safer and do not prevent crime. What they do is 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.’ ”

Opponents of camera networks often point to questions of freedom of assembly, saying they deter people from attending public events or joining a protest.

Gunnerson believes security cameras in such a setting should be seen in a different light.

“What if an act of violence happens at a protest or the police do something wrong?” Gunnerson said. “Wouldn’t you want to know that?”

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, police invited business leaders to a demonstration of their Real Time Crime Center, which is becoming awesome in its scope. Its growth coincided with a summer uptick in crime and its success is being lauded during a recent three-week lull.

To be in the crime center and see it at work is to be convinced that criminals would best find another place to go — that if you do it in Worcester, your chances of getting caught have greatly increased over a short period of time.

Police showed off their ShotSpotter technology, located in a six square-mile section of the city where gunshot sounds are recorded and authenticated in about a minute. Police are able to respond to incidents more quickly than in the recent past, when it could take 15 minutes or more to confirm whether shots had actually been fired. Also, it has been shown that about one out of four gunshots are actually reported to the police. Now all of them are.

Police played audio of a series of shots fired on a late afternoon in July, which was tracked to a location on Illinois Street. Meanwhile, a video of young children playing in Crystal Park at that moment shows them scattering upon hearing the gunshots. In itself, it is a chilling window into a reality of city life.

Police also had footage of a vehicle they believe the shots were fired from. An investigation, that not long ago might not have started, is ongoing.

Inside the boundary where police have situated their ShotSpotter technology, 108 rounds were fired between May and October in 2014. That time period has not run its course this year, but the number stood at 73 as of Sept. 15. Numbers like that will matter as the usefulness of this sort of police work is evaluated.

“This sounds like it’s far out in the future, but it’s real and we’re doing it,” Roche said. “It’s allowing us to engage the community. The people really like it.”

“It’s a blessing,” said Mullen Sawyer, executive director of the Oak Hill Community Development Corporation. “In Grafton Hill, the business owners didn’t want this until the Boston Marathon.”

“We had a tough summer,” Mayor Joseph M. Petty said. “But we’re solving the problem.”

“Despite what you hear recently,” Augustus said, “if you look at all the relevant crime statistics, they are going down.”

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