POLICE SURVEILLANCE CAMERAS: SUMMARY OF DISCUSSION
 

Our discussions on police surveillance cameras on the streets took place at Rocky River Library each Monday evening from March 24 through May 19, 1997. Between five and 10 people attended each meeting. At one meeting, a private investigator, Doug Charney, came to give his views and answer questions.

When the subject was first chosen, some members of the group looked askance, thinking it to be too narrow and technical. As discussion proceeded, however, the subject brought forth a surprisingly rich and productive variety of arguments, considerations, and issues.

Background research turned up examples of police surveillance cameras, or proposals to install them, in Garfield Heights, Warrensville Heights, Cincinnati, Tacoma, Baltimore, San Francisco, London and other cities. Typically, they are mounted on poles and aimed at suspicious street corners. Cost seems to be about $10,000 per camera.

Five basic lines of argument were offered:

The argument in favor was simply that surveillance cameras would make it easier to catch criminals, therefore would lessen crime by deterring criminals and catching them, and perhaps save money as well. This argument appealed to common sense and to examples such as those just mentioned. It was never attacked head-on, but as discussion continued there was a sort of guerrilla war conducted against it, in the form of qualifications and questions, which in the end made its claims less forceful than they appeared at the beginning.

Other arguments claimed that surveillance cameras would help avoid police brutality (as in the Rodney King case), and that use of surveillance cameras is necessary in order for government officers to exercise their First Amendment rights.

One line of argument against - the most elaborate - appealed to the psychological and social consequences which, it was claimed, would result from the cameras - the "psychology of always being watched." This involved "slippery slope" and "worst cases" arguments, which offered grounds for criticism.

Another line of argument against appealed to other undesirable consequences or features of the cameras, such as abuse. Some arguments of this kind appeared to be sound, others not.

The third line of argument against appealed to the right of privacy, that is the right not to have one's privacy unduly invaded. This raised the issue as to what is privacy, or more specifically, what is undue invasion of privacy.

I. Arguments for and about effectiveness.

The purpose of police surveillance cameras on the streets is to fight crime. Hence, the basic argument is that such cameras are effective in fighting crime - by deterring it, by helping catch criminals or in some other way. Unless this argument is sound, no other arguments are of any importance. Proponents aimed to show that cameras are effective to a substantial degree. Opponents aimed to show that cameras are not effective, or that their effectiveness is slight enough to be outweighed by the other considerations (e.g. on grounds of privacy) that weigh against them.

It was brought out that we must distinguish among the various types of crime, e.g.: drug-dealing, vs, theft, vs. mugging and other sorts of violence, vs. prostitution. The effectiveness of cameras may depend substantially on the kind of crime involved. These distinctions become especially relevant below, when we come to the question of reducing crime vs. merely relocating it.

Here are the basic arguments in favor of the cameras, followed by arguments against, with criticism of the arguments and in some cases criticism of the criticism.

A. It was argued that any person will tend to refrain from crime if they know they are being watched. This, it was claimed, is just common sense. Thus surveillance cameras will deter crime. And it was argued that surveillance cameras will be cost efficient.

This argument was criticized on the grounds that some criminals are not wise or not sane, hence they will not use common sense. The counter-criticism was that such criminals will therefore get caught and be put away, therefore reducing crime. (A claim that depends on the effectiveness of cameras in catching criminals, as opposed to deterring them.)

Other arguments in favor of the cameras were based on examples in which surveillance cameras have been used. These include an area around Bellaire Ave., Cleveland, in which residents used camcorders to drive away drug dealers; Methuen, Mass., London and other English cities; and Tacoma, Washington. There were two criticisms of these arguments: 1) These arguments depend on the analogy between the situations involved and the typical surveillance-camera situation. Some of the analogies, at least, are imperfect, in particular, the analogy between citizens using hand-held camcorders and surveillance cameras permanently mounted, and that between England and the U.S. (Regarding England and the U.S. two disanalogies were mentioned: England has been hit by IRA bombings, and it has more of a group mentality than the U.S.) 2) There have been no controlled experiments to show the effectiveness of surveillance cameras, so all we can know is that they seem to work or that a police chief says they work, and that is not conclusive.

B. One argument against effectiveness of surveillance cameras is that even if the cameras are effective in a certain area, that just means the criminals will move to another area; there will be no overall reduction in crime. In criticism of this argument, it was said 1) Even if the criminals only move around, that will make it more difficult for them to operate. 2) Some types of moves, e.g. to isolated places or away from schools, may be beneficial in itself. 3) Fewer places to operate may mean fewer opportunities, which would restrict the criminals' operations.

C. A second argument against effectiveness appeals to examples of robberies that have occurred even with cameras. E.g. a bank with a camera was robbed six times. The criticism of this argument was that without the camera it might have been robbed even more, for all we know.

D. A third such argument is that surveillance cameras have an insignificant effect compared to other measures that might accompany them, e.g. better lighting or neighborhood patrols.

A similar argument asserted that what we really must do to reduce crime is to get improved police protection and to reduce the causes of crime by providing more jobs, etc. The crux of this argument is the assertion that for a given amount of money police patrols etc, give more protection than surveillance cameras, i.e. that they are cost-effective.

E. it was argued that cameras will improve the morale of the public by giving a greater sense of security. Indeed, private investigator Charney seemed to indicate that this might be the greatest benefit. In reply, it was argued that the sense of security gained from these cameras is a false sense of security (and meanwhile, actual security is diminished because attention is taken from police patrols etc.) Indeed, it was suggested that in some cases surveillance cameras might lessen the sense of security, by reminding individuals that they are in a high-crime area.

F. other factors that might make surveillance cameras less effective than they appear were brought out by Charney. We must ask who is monitoring the cameras (if they are monitored at all). This job requires high caliber people for two reasons: 1) They must be able to recognize what's happening in ambiguous situations; 2) the must have high integrity, so as to resist the temptation to resort to blackmail. But typically, the person monitoring is getting minimum wage, with all that implies about motivation and skill. The work is tedious and must be done around the clock, which makes it expensive (even at minimum wage, presumably). Breaks for the monitors are desirable, and that adds to the expense.

Charney also observed that most drug deals are not done on the street, but rather in residences or between cars (and pictures of cars themselves usually don't provide good evidence unless a shot of the face is included.)

Furthermore, what is seen on the tape is always subject to interpretation. (Even in the case of the Rodney King beating.) This is especially true, it is said, in the case of micro-chip cameras, which use infra-red and are therefore monochromatic.

In addition there is the question of re-use of tapes. To avoid exorbitant expense, tapes must be re-used and therefore erased (as TV stations do). We must ask how often the tapes are erased, for the shorter the period of time, the less their usefulness. This applies especially to tapes that are not monitored.

G. In a different kind of approach, it was said that as a blanket question, the effectiveness of police surveillance cameras is untested, but a community probably knows what is best in its own circumstances, so the decision should be left up to each community.

On this approach, the question as to whether to have surveillance cameras splits into two questions: 1) Should communities be allowed to use surveillance cameras at all? (a blanket question) 2) Should individual communities use them? (a case-by-case question)

    These are the major issues raised by the arguments about effectiveness:

    What are the attitudes of criminals regarding surveillance cameras? will they avoid the cameras or ignore them?

    To what extent is crime dependent on a specific location? could it be committed in one location as well as another, or will it be diminished by being forced out of a specific location?

    How effective have surveillance cameras been in locations where they have been installed?

      What constitutes specific proof of effectiveness of surveillance cameras?

      How sound are the analogies between places where cameras have been installed, and those places where they might be installed in the future?

    How cost-effective are cameras, compared to other methods of law enforcement?

    Does tape increase or decrease the need for interpretation?

II. Other arguments in favor of surveillance cameras.

It was argued that the First Amendment gives rights to law enforcement officials as well as to ordinary citizens. The first Amendment guarantees freedom of expression. In order to have freedom of expression, one must have freedom to gather information, and for that purpose surveillance cameras may be necessary. This argument was criticized on the grounds that rights apply only against the government, not on behalf of the government.

In addition, it was argued that surveillance cameras may protect citizens against corrupt law enforcement officials, on the model of the Rodney King episode. (Though the police brutality in that case was caught by an individual's hand-held camera.)

    Issues raised:

    Does the first amendment freedom of expression apply to law enforcement officers?

    Will surveillance cameras help protect against abuse of police power?

    To what extent will surveillance cameras protect against abuse of police power?

III. Arguments based on the "psychology of being watched."

One participant (Diana) set forth a line of argument to the effect that police surveillance cameras will be the first step in a long process resulting in psychological and social deterioration. Here are her arguments:

If we allow police surveillance cameras, we will go down the "slippery slope" to heavier and heavier surveillance of ordinary citizens, in two directions: more and more locations will be under surveillance, and new types of surveillance will be used.

This maximum surveillance will lead to a breakdown between the public and private, thereby producing the following effects:

    loss of spontaneity

    passivity -- accepting anything; lack of protest

    "Good citizenship," i.e. willingness to obey laws, will be by coercion, not choice.

    "Puritanism" -- punishment for small and insignificant crimes

In addition, maximum surveillance will give the public a false sense of security [see elsewhere] and will turn public attention from the root causes of crime, thus preventing fruitful efforts to reduce crime.

Against these harms, the line of argument continues, surveillance cameras offer minimal benefit. Crime is decreasing, and with it the threat from which cameras are supposed to save us. Here we should consider all the arguments given to disprove the effectiveness of the cameras.

Such are the basic steps in this line of argument. But they aren't the only steps, for they need to be supported by other premises which were brought out as questioning and criticism were directed toward the basic steps:

In assuming that surveillance cameras will send us down the slippery slope to maximum surveillance, we are assuming the worst-case scenario. Why should we assume such a scenario? Answer: Because we can see from the proliferation of technology in general that the worst case - proliferation of surveillance technology - is the most probable case. And we should assume the most probable case. Besides, if we don't act on the assumption of the worst case, we risk a situation in which the worst case does come about, we haven't anticipated it, and we've lost control - it's too late to correct the situation.

If maximum surveillance comes about, it will require a great deal of technology, which will be quite expensive, and that will be a barrier to its achievement. Answer:

The expense works both ways. It means that the government will have a large investment in the surveillance technology, which will tend to prevent them from abandoning it.

Suppose maximum surveillance comes about. There is an additional worst-case scenario in the conclusion that it will result in all the psychological and sociological effects envisioned - loss of spontaneity, passivity, etc. What is the evidence for this worst-case scenario? In answer, Diana admitted that more research should be done in this area, but pointed to the psychology of privacy - the profound distinction we feel between that which we do under the gaze of another and that which we do outside such a gaze. It is this distinction that surveillance abolishes - for example, we cannot evade the camera, and we cannot get the camera to avert its eye.

But we have seen that the need for privacy is relative to the person. (This was evident when members of the group gave their opinions about privacy.) How can you generalize to say that maximum surveillance will be bad for all? Answer: We must generalize, because we must have general rules, and these rules should protect those who are most affected. (Here we might consider the discussion on the question of conflicting conceptions of rights, in the last section.)

Surveillance is analogous to people turning each other in for breaking the rules - and that's a good thing. Answer: But who is to decide what the rules are what the reportable behaviors are? There is some behavior we don't want others to know about; of particular significance in this regard is behavior that is embarrassing, possibly immoral, but definitely not illegal. The surveillance camera knows no such distinction - it reports everything. (It might have been answered, in addition, that the analogy between maximum surveillance and the reporting of rule-breaking is not completely justified. The complaint against surveillance, at least in this line of argument, lies in the fact that the person is always beingwatched, and that goes beyond the fact that behavior is being reported. )

    (A diagram of the most important of Diana's arguments appears at the end.)

    These are the issues raised by arguments based on "the psychology of always being watched:"

    Should we assume the worst-case scenario with regard to police surveillance cameras?

      If the cameras are introduced and undesirable results come about, will we be unable to correct the situation?
    Will the introduction of police surveillance cameras lead to widespread proliferation of surveillance devices with respect to type and location? (Will it lead down the "slippery slope')")

    Will the cost of surveillance devices impede or sustain their proliferation?

    If there is widespread proliferation, will such maximum surveillance lead to breakdown of the distinction between public and private in individual mentalities?

      To what extent will the cameras observe behavior we regard as private?
    If there is breakdown between public and private, will this lead to undesirable results such as passivity and loss of spontaneity?

    Will maximum surveillance lead to a false sense of security and disregard of other types of efforts to fight crime?

    Are police surveillance cameras cost-effective compared to other efforts?

    How is one person's need for privacy - or one group's need - to be balanced against the needs (e.g. the need for security) of others who don't have that need?

    How great is the need for any new devices to fight crime - i.e. how serious is the crime problem?

IV. Miscellaneous arguments against surveillance cameras.

A. It was argued that surveillance cameras should not be introduced because they are subject to various forms of abuse, such as blackmail or tampering. On this subject private investigator Charney said that blackmail is always a possibility because of invasion of privacy, but there is small danger of tampering because the video tapes are sealed.

B. He also said that if the government is installing cameras, there is a long political process involved, prone to corruption. For this reason, it is best to have a private company do the installation. He also suggested that the cost should be borne by insurance companies.

C. Along another line, it was argued that surveillance cameras are discriminatory, because they would be concentrated in certain neighborhoods namely the poorer and/or black or Hispanic neighborhoods, and because they would pick out "unusual" individuals scrutiny. In answer it was said that if cameras are concentrated in a particular neighborhood it is because the neighborhood is a high-crime area and needs the cameras. In other words, the neighborhood would be helped rather than discriminated against. (And it might be said, regarding individual discrimination, that the camera observes everyone. If "unusual" persons are discriminated against it is in the interpretation put on their actions. This gets into the question of interpretation, mentioned elsewhere.)

D. Citing another disadvantage, Charney said that surveillance cameras may reveal the identities of informants in drug enforcement.

V. The argument from the right to privacy.

The final argument against police surveillance appealed to the right to privacy. In the concern for privacy, this argument was like that based on "the psychology of always being watched," but there is a fundamental distinction. There the concern was harmful results claimed to ensue from lack of privacy. Here, the lack of privacy represented by surveillance cameras is itself claimed to be a violation of individuals' rights.

Thus the argument from privacy rights is approached in a way different from any of the other arguments. In the other arguments, we needed to know what the results of surveillance cameras would be, and whether those results would be beneficial or harmful. Thus we were arguing about the facts of the world. In this argument, we argue mainly about concepts and definitions. For if we want to know whether surveillance cameras violate our rights of privacy, we need to know what "privacy" means, and we need to know what our rights are in this area. Our procedure, then, is not to look at the real world and see what is likely to happen (e.g. will cameras likely deter criminals?) but rather the more abstract procedure of giving real or hypothetical examples, as well as analogies, in order to test definitions or principles.

Our discussion looked at four questions. First we considered the question "What is privacy?" Then we realized that the more crucial question is "What is undue invasion of privacy, or what is the right of privacy?" In addressing both of these questions, our assumption was that there was one right answer that everyone would agree to if they thought about it enough. But we also had to consider the possibility that different people had different conceptions of the right privacy, i.e. that undue invasion of privacy was one thing to one person, another thing to another person, and their different views could not be reconciled. So we asked what is to be done if one person's view of the right to privacy conflicts with another's, or if one person's (or group's) view of the right to privacy conflicts with the interests of others. Finally, it was suggested that whatever our privacy rights might be, we give them up when (that is, we give up those relevant to surveillance cameras) when we agree to have a police force.

Let's look at each of these questions in turn.

A. In answer to "What is privacy?" this definition was given, and pretty well accepted throughout the discussion: "Privacy is freedom to conduct oneself without unwanted or unexpected observation or interference." (other versions: "... without being observed or molested by others." "Privacy is the freedom to conduct oneself without surveillance.")

Is this definition just an obvious, commonsense truism? No, because there were different definitions or conceptions of privacy that could have been chosen but weren't. For one thing, this definition says that privacy lies in the relation between observer and observed. Alternatives suggested were: Lack of privacy lies in the state of mind of the person who might be observed (e.g. freedom from apprehension), or belief that one is free from...). Or that lack of privacy lies in the state of mind of the observer (e.g. erotic curiosity). Also rejected was a qualification to the definition, namely: "...within the perimeter of morality." (The trouble with this is that it implies we wouldn't know whether a person's privacy is invaded unless we knew whether he/she was doing something immoral.)

The problem is that we're not really interested in what privacy is, or what invades privacy. For, taking the above definition at face value, we can think of lots of situations in which privacy is clearly invaded and it's OK. Suppose we're out on a crowded street. Suppose a stranger looks at us (not staring, just looking), and we don't like it, or we don't expect it. Or suppose that same celebrity is passing by, and we look at him, and he doesn't like. ("Why wouldn't he like it?" you ask. Who knows and who cares? That's not the point.) In both cases, privacy - according to the definition above - is invaded (or "negated" might be a better term). But certainly there's nothing anyone could complain about. So the concept of "privacy" is too broad - it doesn't help us pin down what is objectionable and what is not.

B. What we need to find - to define - is the undue invasion of privacy, which means violation of one's right to privacy. So another way of putting it is that we need to know what privacy a person has a right to, that is, what the right to privacy consists of.

How, then, do we define undue invasion of privacy? Here we're looking for a standard that everyone will agree to, and the method is to offer a standard and then see if it holds good in all cases we can think of. Here are the standards that came out of the discussion, and the hypotheticals that drove the discussion on.

a) It is an invasion of privacy to take a person's image (or to observe them) without their consent. In other words, one should always have an option as to whether they are observed or not.

It was pointed out that one always has an option not to be observed or taped. If there is a camera on the street you normally walk on, you can walk on a different street. If cameras are on every street, you can stay home with closed curtains. If there is a camera at your office, you can stay away from the office. But, you say, that would be unreasonable. Of course it would be unreasonable But it would still conform to the standard of having an option. In talking about unreasonableness, you have discarded the option-standard and have introduced a new standard, that of reasonableness. Now we have to decide when it is reasonable to be observed, which gets us right back to where we began. But we have observed that observation, or surveillance, would be permissible in some places and not in others, and that takes us to the next standard.

b) It is an undue invasion of privacy to observe someone in public places or in that person's home, but not elsewhere. (so, for example, it is all right for X to film Y when Y is in X's driveway; but it's wrong for X - or for the police - to film Y when Y is walking on a public sidewalk.) This is a geographical (or territorial) standard - it makes a distinction according to the kind of territory the observed person is in.

Two examples were brought up in connection with this standard. One is the filming of fans at a football game. They are in a public place, so is their privacy unduly invaded when they are filmed? It was generally agreed that their privacy is not being unduly invaded. How, then, can the geographical standard be upheld? The answer was in the form of a distinction between surveillance and other forms of observation. The fans at the game were being observed, to be sure, and their images were recorded, but that's not a case of surveillance. This leads to the question: What is surveillance? A complete answer wasn't given, but it was said that surveillance is a function, or final use (which is not necessarily the same as the intention in doing something.) This suggests a joint standard: Undue invasion of privacy occurs when someone is observed (or filmed etc.) in a public place and the function of the observation is an illegitimate one, such as surveillance. We'll return to this after the other example.

The other example concerns a restroom camera. Suppose Y is in X's home, in the bathroom, and X has installed a surveillance camera in the bathroom. It's commonly agreed that this would be an invasion of privacy, at least if the camera was hidden. (One person said it would be OK if we knew the camera is there, apparently getting back to the option-criterion.) Yet by the geographic criterion, it would be OK, because Y is in X's home. So this and the other example suggest a third standard.

A functional standard: Undue invasion of privacy is observation for an illegitimate or with an illegitimate function. This fits the examples well. The bathroom observation is undue invasion of privacy because it has the purpose or function of viewing intimate moments. The filming of football fans is OK because it is incidental to the legitimate purposes of showing the game and showing the crowd having a good time. Yet there is a difficulty: As long as we don't know what the final use of an observation or filming is, we don't know whether privacy has been invaded; but that seems to be against common opinion.

The series ended before we could get any further into this question. But an interesting side-question came up and is worth noting. It has to do with the relation between our principles (e.g. the definition of undue invasion of privacy), and our feelings about particular examples. Generally when we have definite feelings that particular examples are right or wrong (e.g. that it's wrong to operate a surveillance camera in the bathroom), we fashion our principles to fit those examples. However, it may be that our feelings are wrong and need to be corrected. For example, many or most white southerners of the early 1800s felt that slavery was the proper order of things, but they should have discounted those feelings in the light of more authoritative principles.

C. Another way of approaching the problem of privacy rights is to assume that various individuals or groups have different standards. Whose standard should society employ? One answer is that we should employ the broadest standard that anyone holds, for then everyone would have the privacy they want (and many people would have more). But this was met with the example of an extremely broad standard (e.g. a person who thinks his privacy is invaded if anyone is within 100 miles.) We would think of that as irrational and uncalled-for. So we may want a broad standard, but it has to be reasonable. Again the question: What is reasonable?

Similarly, we can ask how the right to privacy that some people want to enjoy is to be balanced against other claims.

To begin, is privacy an absolute right? If the right to privacy is absolute, then no other considerations, such as effectiveness in deterring crime, are relevant. Privacy must not be unduly invaded, and no more is to be said.

On the other hand, if privacy is not absolute, then we get into the balance of minority vs. majority or of one minority vs. another. Suppose that only a minority object to being observed. Should this minority enjoy freedom from surveillance even though the majority favor surveillance?

Slavery was given as a possible analogy: suppose the majority vote that a certain group be slaves. We would say that the group should enjoy freedom from slavery nonetheless. Similarly, should a group that objects to surveillance enjoy freedom from surveillance no matter what the majority wants?

Another issue: how do we weigh freedom from surveillance on the part of one group (protection of the right of privacy as they see it) against the interests of those who would benefit from surveillance cameras (e.g., someone living near crackhouses);? It was suggested that they should put up cameras themselves, but against this it was said that this is something society should do for those who need it.

(This is part of the general question of how we should balance the liberties of some - perhaps the majority - against the more tangible interests of others. There are echoes of the controversy about giving up civil liberties to fight drugs/crime/AIDS/etc.)

D. A final argument was that we had given up our right to remain unobserved when we agreed to have a police force to watch our behavior. In other words, we agree that the police may watch us, and a surveillance camera is analogous to the police.

This argument was not examined, but the analogy between cameras and the police or other instruments came up several times. E.g., it was said that we don't think of radar guns as unduly invading our privacy, and surveillance cameras are analogous.

    Issues raised by the arguments concerning rights of privacy:

    What is privacy?

    What is the standard for undue invasion of privacy?

    Is the right of privacy absolute?

    If not, what weight does it have against competing claims?

    If different individuals/groups have different standards of undue invasion of privacy, what standard should society overall employ?


 
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