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Monday, May 12, 2008

Police Cameras: Privacy vs Security

The mayor of Seattle has created a bit of a tempest in a teapot with his decision to bypass the Seattle City Council and purchase closed circuit security cameras for the police to monitor a local park due to increased complaints of criminal activity. The council insisted that some conditions be met before approving expenditures for surveillance activities, namely protections of privacy by only allowing the police to view video when a crime is reported and only for investigating those crimes specifically.

Now, most of the press seems to be against the idea of more police surveillance and cameras as is the local ACLU of Washington State. They insist that it's a relatively ineffective approach to combating criminal activity and that Seattle would be better served by just hiring more police with the funds spent on surveillance technology instead. Indeed, evidence from the UK seems to back them up because top police officials there state that CCTV cameras have not deterred crime enough to justify the expense. The UK has the most CCTV police cameras in the world and officials estimate a reduction of 3% due to the use of cameras. (however, the expensive police CCTV system is good for bands who can't afford to shoot their own music videos)

Of course, I'm more conflicted than most people on the issue myself. While opponents insist that video camera footage never helps victims of crime, such footage did help me. Albeit, the cameras that saved me were located inside private property, they were still surveillance cameras. However, while those cameras did verify my own claims of innocence when I was falsely accused of a crime, there were no cameras at the police station and jail to verify my claims of police misconduct.

Additionally, there are other cases where surveillance footage worked against the police when misconduct was concerned... but again, those were also cases of privately owned or media owned surveillance equipment. So it seems as though cameras on private property are a great thing because they are more accessible to the public in cases of police misconduct or to verify the veracity of criminal allegations.

The problem that comes to play where city-owned cameras are concerned is that Seattle has the WORST record in the state of Washington when it comes to following Freedom Of Information Act requests, especially those in regards to video footage where an officer stands accused of misconduct. In fact, the police department never releases footage that it obtains when questions of police misconduct are put forward. The only time video evidence of misconduct comes out is when it was recorded by private individuals or the media. So, while the city of Seattle is becoming more aggressive about monitoring citizen activities, it is still quite lax about monitoring it's own employees, especially the police... the typical double-standard that insists only the public is suspect, never the government... that we must be held to a higher standard, not them.

While other localities have implemented policies to ensure that police interrogations are recorded at all times in order to limit the charges of abuse, forced confessions, and falsified confessions, Seattle still doesn't. In fact, Seattle still has to place cameras in precincts to record areas where detainees are held, interrogated, strip-searched, or transported. Meanwhile, even though Seattle has been placing dash-cams in police cruisers, not all police vehicles have dash-cams and officers do not follow the policy of turning dash cams around to monitor detainees while they are in their vehicles.

Yet, even when dash cams do catch acts of police violence, the department never releases that video evidence even when FOIA requests are filed by the media, as seen in the Hayes beating case where undercover ACT officers assaulted a civilian for jaywalking.

While a reporter from The Stranger was able to eventually get his hands on the the above dash-cam footage of the assault despite several refusals by the police department "out of concerns for the suspect's privacy, even though they stated it would exonerate the officers", he got it from a source other than the city government or police... and viewing the footage does not seem to show how the police department claims of clear exonerating evidence were valid.

In fact, even in the face of live media broadcasts of police misconduct, as in this case where this person was chased down, beaten, and then shot with a stun gun after he was already down on his hands and knees in retribution for talking back to an officer... then when police threatened to shoot a stun gun at a female bystander's face. The city still completely ignores the charges of misconduct even when the evidence was broadcast live.

Indeed, Seattle persistently exonerates officers even in the face of video evidence and always attempts to keep that evidence from the public when it does exist. While the city states that it seeks to repair the image of it's police force and rebuild public trust, it still maintains a police of secrecy and denial of access to evidence of police brutality and misconduct. Ironic considering the city attorney sits on the state's open governance board and the city insists it should be trusted to increase it's own surveillance of our lives.

So, privacy concerns aren't the only problem with the city's lopsided CCTV surveillance policies, there is also the issue of who watches the watchers... and at this point, it's clear that the answer in Seattle is Nobody At All.

Perhaps, if the city were honest about cases of police misconduct and responsive to public records requests it would be able to repair the damaged trust it has with the community that it claims to desire... and maybe then it could be trusted to put cameras out there to help catch criminals. But until then... they just can't be trusted to watch us because we know they don't let us watch them and they certainly don't watch themselves.

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