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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bright lights, small city: Who's watching small town America and why?

Surveillance cameras are spreading like crazy in small towns, according to an article in the Washington Post. Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold writes that the village of Bellows Falls, Vt.,
in the shadow of Fall Mountain and alongside the iced-over Connecticut River, is the kind of place where a little of anything usually suffices. There are eight full-time police officers on the town's force, two chairs in the barbershop and one screen in the theater.

A little of anything -- except surveillance cameras. Bellows Falls has decided it needs 16.
The town of 3200, with money from a $100,000 Federal grant specifically earmarked for technology, hopes to set up 24-hour cameras in the town square, intersections, recreation areas and the water treatment plant. With 16 cameras, Bellows Falls will have three less police cameras than Washington, D.C., if Fahrenthold has his facts right. Other small towns across America, like the Virginia towns of Galax and Tazewell, have already set up camera systems.

Apparently things have changed in small town America.
"People don't notice things" as they used to in Bellows Falls, Police Chief Keith Clark said. "Technology is there to do that."
Clark concedes not everyone in town is as enthusiastic about the new unblinking eye of the police as he is: "I have a new nickname-- I am Big Brother," he jokes. If he gets his way, the cameras will be monitored 24 hours a day by a dispatcher who can send out police to investigate signs of trouble.

At a public meeting Tuesday night, Clark defended the investment.
"Your concern [is] I'm going to be watching you all the time-- ladies and gentlemen, I've got news for you-- you're not that interesting," Clark told the standing-room only crowd.
Retired Army officer Roy Lidie, a Bellows Falls resident didn't like the idea:

"My service and the oath that I swore was to protect and defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States of America," Lidie said. "The business of running rough-shod over the rights of the citizens of this country and the citizens of this village really disturbs me."

Clark reflects on the impact the cameras will have on his force with an argument with which readers of this blog will be quite familiar. The intent is not to replace officers - it is to enhance the ability of the cops to bring their force to bear on society.
Clark says crime has fallen, but not far enough, especially when it comes to vandalism and drunk driving. Clark says he doesn't have the manpower and his budget won't let him hire more. So he hopes cameras would both deter crime and catch criminals.

"Security cameras provide a tool. They're not the end all be all-- I know that," said Clark. "If we can cut vandalism by 10% I can use those officers for something else."
Because the goal is to increase the power of police, cops often make seemingly contradictory arguments for the deployment of these kinds of technologies. In their eyes, when crime is high, the stats justify cameras to increase police power. Likewise - and seemingly paradoxically except when viewed as a power grab - camera supporters often cite low crime rates to justify them as well. According to another article in the Battleboro Reformer,
Clark said that while crime was down significantly in Bellows Falls, he needed the security system to continue that trend and improve on it.

"I have done what you asked me to do." He said. "Now I am asking you to work with me."
Further, when the cameras seem to provide no tangible results, police still defend them, as Capt. William Zbacnik of the Pittsburg, Calif., Police Department did recently. "We have not actually captured any crimes on video," he conceded. Nevertheless, he defended the 11 cameras his small town installed last year. "It costs you virtually $100,000 to put an officer on the street versus $5,000 for a camera," he said. "I'd put as many cameras out there as you can."

Of course, when they do catch criminals, police hype the capture.
In Newnan, Ga., for instance, Chief D.L. Meadows recalled a case in which one of his 20 cameras spotted a drug suspect sitting on his front porch, then provided the chief with an electronic view of the arrest.

"I was sitting in my office and watched him break and run" as officers arrived, Meadows said.

"It was great. I mean, I enjoyed it."
It's a win-win situation for cops, and for the elites they exist to defend. And, while there is often a desire to see technology as beneficial, or neutral - even amongst anarchists - we would do well to reconsider the role that past technologies we take for granted have had on the power of police, such as the telephone, radio and the automobile. These technologies, when viewed negatively at all, are rarely viewed in terms of the increased power they gave to the ruling class.

Nevertheless, their deployment has very negatively impacted social movements. Consider the massive increase in the powers, responsibility and reach of the police that signal boxes ("call boxes"), primitive telephones and telegraphs, had on policing. According to the Chicago Public Libraries history of the Chicago Police.
Advances in technology precipitated the establishment in 1861 of the Police Patrol and Signal Service. In order to respond quickly to the alarms generated by the new call boxes, there was stationed at each precinct house a patrol wagon manned by police officers. Since these men had to respond to calls resulting from a variety of problems, they had to serve as medical attendants and ambulance drivers, arbiters of family disputes, apprehenders of thieves as well as aid those foot patrolmen who did not have the advantage of speedy transportation.
The signal box for the first time allowed police on the beat to communicate directly with the precinct, and to summon reinforcements in large numbers to put down riots and insurrections. The signal box itself led to the creation of the "patrol wagon," "sort of a nineteenth century SWAT team," which was able to deliver large numbers of police quickly and, for the first time, to permit regular mass arrests of strikers and rioters.

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
Chicago's police were first to adopt a “signal service” in 1880, combining telegraph and telephone, to allow patrolmen on their beats to summon an ambulance or patrol wagon. Patrolmen were required to report hourly to ensure they were awake and on the job. A few “respectable” citizens were given keys to the signal system, which was also used as a field communications system for controlling crowds and riots.
Indeed, businessmen often rented the signal boxes, installing them in their homes so they could call on help in case the workers got out of hand and headed for the boss's neighborhood. Anarchists who still entertain the idea that such technologies have brought more - or even equal - benefits as problems would do well to remember the prominent role that these technologies played in suppressing the massive labor uprisings of the time, which as we have seen certainly included Chicago - and the Haymarket riot. Surely the benefits of a revolution outweigh the ability to make a phone call.

In that context, it is important to recognize the role that the new wireless technology is playing in the spread of surveillance cameras. I have written about how the city I live in has pushed it's wireless internet plan without bothering to explain that one of its main uses will be to allow police to set up mobile and fixed wireless surveillance cameras thanks to mesh technology - and to more broadly utilize face recognition and other automated policing technologies.

The links are clear, and the enthusiasm of the ruling class and the police for these technologies ought to at least give antiauthoritarians serious pause when considering the possible benefits they will allegedly deliver. I find it unlikely that the very elites who benefit so clearly from increased police power would invest so much time and energy into these technologies if they were so easily hijacked or unreliable in their effect - or didn't deliver for them heightened security through increased deterrance, regulation and punishment.

As reported on Chron.com:
Wireless access technology has quickly evolved from the coffee shop hot spots to city-wide wireless networks. Lebanon, Oregon, with a population of nearly 13,000, recognized the opportunity to utilize a city-wide outdoor wireless mesh solution for critical communications requirements of the local Police Department, Fire Department as well as local utility companies. The city intends to provide city and emergency workers with the ability to wirelessly connect back to their departments and apply technology without the constraints of physical network access, extending the reach of all services. The broadband technology will enable field workers to access large data files such as GIS maps at any time and any place within the wireless network area. Excess bandwidth will be available for public access via a secure virtual segmentation of the wireless network.
Yuppies will surf the internet in the sun while their police protectors wirelessly crack down with increasing efficiency on the poor and working class in town that they want to dislodge from the home we have known for so long.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that, according to many in leadership positions - in small and large towns alike - the mere existence of the technology itself demands utilizing it for oppressive purposes. Bellows Falls Town Trustee Chairman Charlie Jarras said, "I think it would be silly if they vote against it and we still have it."

But, as for me, I'm on the side of Bellows Falls camera opponent John Hyslop, who put it quite eloquently: "We're citizens, not subjects. Being monitored whether for the best intentions or whatever-- makes you a subject, not a citizen."

Maybe it's time to do some hard thinking about the true nature of technology and the kind of world we want to live in. The mere existence of this technology may well demand its use against us. If so, that's a problem for anarchists and others who think that technology is neutral, just waiting for us to decide what to do with it. If surveillance is embedded in wireless technology, then perhaps some rethinking is in order.


Blogger Christopher King said...

I think you will enjoy this read.

Pass it on. My liberty is at stake.


No Justice, No Peace.

Fri Mar 10, 01:06:00 AM 2006  

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