This morning’s Chronicle highlighted a column by Chip Johnson on, you guessed it, crime and fear in Oakland. The piece focused on worries amongst business owners in Chinatown over violent crime, presumably sparked by the murders of two Asian men earlier this year in other parts of Downtown Oakland.
As the Oakland Police Department lays off officers to cope with a budget gap, the private sector appears to be stepping in by hiring security guards and installing surveillance cameras to monitor the exterior of their properties. The Chinatown Chamber of Commerce told Johnson they currently have cameras on one hundred local businesses, and hope to involve 500 enterprises in their surveillance program.
Johnson’s evidence for supporting widespread video monitoring, be it public or private sector? Everyone else is doing it:
“Since the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the federal government has provided millions of dollars in public funding to increase electronic monitoring all over the country.
Such devices have been installed from Pittsburgh to Madison, Wis., to Liberty, Kan., a town of 95 people who placed cameras in a public park. Authorities in St. Paul, Minn., a city of 287,000 residents with a violent crime rate dwarfed by Oakland’s statistics, installed 60 cameras on its downtown streets.
In Oakland, a city with a significant rate of violent crime and dwindling law enforcement, placing as many eyes on the street, whether they belong to Big Brother or not, could prove a valuable resource in the days ahead.”
Aside from the fact that crime is on a two-year downward trend – something we pointed out yesterday, again – there are notable problems with video surveillance. Cameras don’t deter or prevent violent crime, as studies of San Francisco and New York City surveillance projects have shown. It can provide good forensic evidence to charge individuals after the fact, as was the case in the two Downtown murders Johnson highlighted.
However, camera systems are expensive to maintain and update, and there are myriad questions about whether their use violates an individual’s right to privacy. New York City’s massive “Ring of Steel” surveillance system involves a merger of public and private camera systems in Lower Manhattan, and allows private businesses access to sensitive New York Police Department information and footage.
In an article I wrote last Spring for City Limits, Chris Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, gave me his impressions of the Ring of Steel and its implications for New Yorkers:
“The NYPD has been very successful in using legitimate concerns about terrorism to justify sweeping initiatives that have nothing to do with terrorism,” said Chris Dunn, the NYCLU’s associate legal director. “Commissioner Kelly has placed a particular emphasis on intelligence gathering, and unfortunately that is turning into a program of universal surveillance of law-abiding New Yorkers.”
We have no idea whether Oakland’s businesses and police will go down the same path as cities like New York or Chicago. However, it is worth looking at their experiences to determine whether such surveillance is a proper, or necessary, step in fighting crime.