“Hey, if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” I hear that comment frequently from people defending the City of Fresno’s use of video surveillance. But I can’t help wonder what would happen if we took that remark and redirected it to those who are responsible for spying on us—what dark secrets lurk behind that brick wall?
The Fresno Police Department (FPD) started its video surveillance project in 2006 with approval and $1.2 million from the City Council. At the time, the FPD agreed to develop a policy manual to guarantee our civil and human rights would not be violated. City Council member Jerry Duncan appointed me to the committee to help write the document.
I was concerned where this technology was going and encouraged the City Council to mandate the use of an auditor who would have access to the inner workings of the project and report on any new developments or problems, should they occur. What could go wrong? Well, I wanted to make sure that we would be informed if the FPD started using new technology, like infrared imaging that can see what you are doing inside your house.
Maybe you aren’t doing anything illegal in your house, but you probably do not want a police cadet watching your every move in the bedroom. Most of us would also be uncomfortable if we thought police officers at River Park had cameras with the capability of looking through a young woman’s clothes as she walked through the mall. The City Council wisely agreed that we needed to monitor this project and included a requirement that it be audited annually.
Video surveillance technology is advancing so fast that what is being manufactured today was only dreamed about in 2006. Soon, biometrics and facial recognition technology will make it possible for the police to pick you out of a crowd, wherever you go. If you are a person of interest and you are out in public, this new technology can find, follow you around and have an officer pick you up. This is not such a bad thing if they are following a child molester, but what about a police officer who is having “issues” with his girlfriend. Could this technology be used to stalk her, follow her everywhere, eliminating any presumption of privacy? How would we know if this was happening, if there was not someone auditing/overseeing the project?
Without safeguards in place, problems can and do occur. For example, in Washington, D.C., a police employee monitoring video surveillance cameras recorded video of a man entering a gay bar. Using police computers, the employee researched the license number of the car the man was driving and used the information to extort money from him. In London, an operator was caught selling voyeuristic videos from the cameras he was monitoring.
The cameras that have already been installed around town can also have a chilling effect on free speech. Is it just a coincidence that one of the cameras was installed right outside the door of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence? Does having the government watching volunteers and staff 24 hours a day bother anyone? Would you like to be under investigation because the police saw you attend a meeting at the FCNV? One of the issues raised in the policy manual was that law enforcement could not use the video surveillance equipment to spy on groups involved in constitutionally protected free speech activities. We will only know if our rights are being protected if we have access to information about how the equipment is being used.
Bill Simon is on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the Chief’s Advisory Board (CAB). At the CAB meetings, Simon meets with Police Chief Jerry Dyer and other community members to talk about policing issues. Recently, Simon brought up the video surveillance project and asked if there had ever been an audit conducted, as mandated by the City Council. Dyer said “no” and mentioned something about a retired federal judge who was supposed to work on it but had dropped out for health reasons.
At the CAB meeting, Simon said, “Studies show that bright lighting is more effective than cameras. If you want a picture of who mugged you, install a camera. If you don’t want to get mugged, install a bright light.” Simon said that Dyer and several others at the meeting nodded vigorously to second what he said. Dyer agreed, saying, “That’s true.”
I have asked FPD representatives repeatedly about whether there has ever been an audit of the video surveillance project. The answer is always the same, “We are working on it.” It has been five years, and there has been nobody checking behind the curtain to see what is going on.
Simon has been told that retired federal judge Oliver Wanger is willing to conduct the audit but so far, there is no timeline for action. Should the FPD be accountable to the City Council and the community and provide us with the truth about what is being done with our tax dollars?
The Community Alliance newspaper supports government transparency. We would like to find out the following:
- How much has the FPD spent on the video surveillance project so far?
- The location and capability of all current video surveillance cameras.
- What new (since 2006) video technology has been implemented?
- What new technology is in the pipeline and is being considered for use in this community?
- Is there any evidence that the FPD has used this technology to monitor community groups exercising their First Amendment rights?
- Are the digital video archives being purged on a regular basis? How often?
- The auditor is supposed to regularly monitor the use of the video surveillance equipment to guarantee that it is not being misused. If that has not been done in the past, how can you assure the community that no abuse has taken place? How will this project be monitored in the future?
Let’s remind those in charge of the video surveillance project that “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” Because the FPD staff are public servants, we have a right to know what they are doing with our tax dollars. We have a right to know the conditions under which they are spying on us. Anything less than full transparency would be a dangerous and unwelcome step in the direction of a police state.
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