Commentary: Council Needs to Give Surveillance and Cameras in Public Places More Thought

We have learned or we should have learned that it is a false comfort to argue that those who have nothing to fear, should fear nothing in terms of surveillance and privacy problems.

We should have learned that because we have a long history in this country of abuse of surveillance dating back to the conduct of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

I was therefore concerned that the council last week was willing to expand the use of public surveillance of parking lots under the guise of security and concern about car break ins.

In fairness, they do want to have oversight and be guided by use polices.

Mayor Brett Lee said, “I’m supportive of having cameras.  The key with cameras is the policy surrounding their use.  I’m very supportive of having cameras physically there.”

He said, “The idea here is not to catch someone from breaking into a car, it’s to discourage someone from (it) – it’s prevention.”

Councilmember Dan Carson said, “I’m supportive of going through our normal process of evaluating surveillance technology both to look at the cameras and I am interested in learning about the license plate readers.”

Councilmember Lucas Frerichs said, “The issue of increased use of cameras, I share the same concerns about the parameters around them, but I think personally… there’s a lot of concern (about crime).”

He said that the need for the increased usage of cameras in lieu of not having increased bodies was essential in their efforts to ensure public safety.

Councilmember Will Arnold noted that there will be a process for these items and he is open to discussing those details.

“I share many of the concerns that folks have about cameras and recognition technology, but my personal feeling is that license plates are not a private thing,” he said.  He saw the tracking of vehicles by law enforcement as the point of license plates, “I don’t see this as being an invasion of privacy, although there should be limits as to what is done with that information – crime prevention not cost recovery.”

I really wish the council would ask hard questions first and then pursue a policy here.  I don’t just mean about use policies.

The first problem – there is no evidence that video surveillance is effective.  That was a strange omission from the discussion.  If we are going to give up privacy, we should have evidence that the cure will work.

It sounds good – have video surveillance, catch or deter bad conduct.

The problem is clear if you have ever watch surveillance in court – it helps at times but what it rarely does well is actually identify the perpetrator.  So if you have a known suspect, the video surveillance can work rather well in showing what they did.  It does not work particularly well in showing who did.

Why?  Lighting is a big problem.  Resolution of the camera is a huge problem.  Angles are another problem.

The ACLU in objecting to using cameras for potential terrorist subjects notes: “The real reason cameras are usually deployed is to reduce much pettier crimes.”  They find, “it has not even been demonstrated that they can do that.”

It is ripe for absue.  The ACLU notes: “One problem with creating such a powerful surveillance system is that experience tells us it will inevitably be abused.”

This probably concerns me the most.  I see a use-policy as a false-hope which I will explain in a moment.

The ACLU lists five ways that such surveillance camera systems can be misused.

Criminal abuse: “In 1997, for example, a top-ranking police official in Washington, DC was caught using police databases to gather information on patrons of a gay club. By looking up the license plate numbers of cars parked at the club and researching the backgrounds of the vehicles’ owners, he tried to blackmail patrons who were married. Imagine what someone like that could do with a citywide spy-camera system.”

Institutional abuse: “During the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, for example, the FBI – as well as many individual police departments around the nation – conducted illegal operations to spy upon and harass political activists who were challenging racial segregation and the Vietnam War. This concern is especially justified since we are in some respects enduring a similar period of conflict today.”

Abuse for personal purposes: “Powerful surveillance tools also create temptations to abuse them for personal purposes. An investigation by the Detroit Free Press, for example, showed that a database available to Michigan law enforcement was used by officers to help their friends or themselves stalk women, threaten motorists after traffic altercations, and track estranged spouses.”

Discriminatory targeting: “Video camera systems are operated by humans who bring to the job all their existing prejudices and biases. In Great Britain, camera operators have been found to focus disproportionately on people of color. According to a sociological study of how the systems were operated, “Black people were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population.””

Voyeurism: “Experts studying how the camera systems in Britain are operated have also found that the mostly male (and probably bored) operators frequently use the cameras to voyeuristically spy on women.”

In Davis, what would I consider the most serious possibilities: criminal abuse, institutional abuse, and discriminatory targeting.

My concern here is this: “Advanced surveillance systems such as CCTV need to be subject to checks and balances.”

Use policies therefore would seem to be a good idea to resolve this problem.  The ACLU argues there need to be “clear consensus about where we draw the line on surveillance” as well as “legally enforceable rules for operation.”

The problem of course is that we have had legally enforceable rules governing the use of surveillance in this country in various forms for a long time.  And that hasn’t stopped abuse.

But as was the case with FBI, by the time that a governmental body was willing to step up and act, decades had gone by.

In the meantime, the biggest problem that I see is: we don’t know, what we don’t know.

Are these remote possible downsides here in Davis – maybe.  Maybe not.  I always worry about the cumulative impact of having every movement I make be caught on video.  I worry about nefarious and incompetent investigators searching surveillance for patterns and clues that might actually be innocent and used to implicate innocent people.

And I worry that we don’t know, what we don’t know.

Use policies are great, but you need to actually catch someone in wrongdoing in order to for them to do any good.

The ACLU warns: “The growing presence of public cameras will bring subtle but profound changes to the character of our public spaces. When citizens are being watched by the authorities – or aware they might be watched at any time – they are more self-conscious and less free-wheeling.”

That gets us back to the start: what is the benefit here versus the risk?  Is putting a surveillance camera in a parking lot with inconsistent lighting, difficult angles, and relatively low resolution going to protect us from petty crime or is it more likely to simply be an intrusion into our privacy?

The ACLU concludes: Like any intrusive technology, the benefits of deploying public video cameras must be balanced against the costs and dangers. This technology (a) has the potential change the core experience of going out in public in America because of its chilling effect on citizens, (b) carries very real dangers of abuse and “mission creep,” and (c) would not significantly protect us against terrorism (or even petty crime).”

I think if the city wants to do this, they need to have an actual study done by a consultant who is not affiliated with law enforcement and vetted by civil liberties professionals to see if this is worthwhile.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Alan Miller

    Perhaps we could have like they have in Sacramato, where they have a camera with a shield and a blue flashing light like on a police car, I guess like that’s supposed to spook criminals — “officer on a pole”.  That doesn’t make me feel literally like I’m in a police state!

  2. Alan Miller

    Voyeurism: “Experts studying how the camera systems in Britain are operated have also found that the mostly male (and probably bored) operators frequently use the cameras to voyeuristically spy on women.”

    I told this story here years ago, but I was crossing the intersection of 9th and I Streets in Sacrameno, and the camera on the pole in front of me on the southeast corner was moving.  I’d never seen that before, so I looked across the street and there was a very attractive, leggy woman in a short dress crossing the intersection across from me, and the camera was clearly following her.  So yeah, that happens!

    1. Bill Marshall

      So yeah, that happens!

      A lot of aberrations happen.

      Davis has used cameras with at least licence plate recognition capabilities frequently over the years… for destination/origin studies (Ex.  First Street Corridor, when evaluating traffic improvement options)… red-light violation cameras (3 locations come immediately to mind)… many years of this.

      Cameras with license plate/car model recognition, patrol downtown as traffic enforcement.

      Davis has ‘camera driven’ traffic presence detection at quite a few signalized intersections.

      A camera without an ‘operator’,or with no rotational capability would resolve the ‘voyeurism’ thing.

      Am not advocating for surveillance cameras. I share none of the paranoia though…

      Ironically, some of the most ardent supporters of  ‘body-cams’ are the opponents of static cameras. PD body-cams can be (and have been) used in evidence to convict people, as well as expose police misconduct.

      “Rules of the Game” are needed, to be sure… and cost/benefit analysis is definitely needed, as well… if those two criteria are met, I’m neutral.

      1. Bill Marshall

        [BTW… police body cams are able to rotate, and capture images of attractive, leggy women in short skirts… might even happen more often than Alan experienced.  Record, go to the station to share, then erase before the supervisor knows what is going on]

        1. David Greenwald

          A fair question.  The ACLU had some concerns about privacy there as well.  The DPD took steps to implement protections for privacy in their use guides.

          In the end, in the end, I think it comes down to two key factors.  Body cameras are of limited use while stationary surveillance cameras are continuous.  Second, the upside of body worn cameras is that it presents a good deal of light – police conduct, interviews with suspects, subject conduct – that outweighs the risks.

        2. Bill Marshall

          The DPD took steps to implement protections for privacy in their use guides.

          Cannot they do the same with the ‘public’ cameras?

          The problem of course is that we have had legally enforceable rules governing the use of surveillance in this country in various forms for a long time.  And that hasn’t stopped abuse. (DG)

          I am more concerned about putting infrastructure in place that can be misused by another ‘regime’ in the future.  Thus, policies are meaningless.(AM)

          Guess not… so, we should logically ban red-light violation cameras, police body cams, etc. VERY conservative… different, but similar… public disclosure of public employees’ salaries, benefits, etc.  Why not be transparent on behaviors?  we already are in so many other areas…

          In effect, the VG, via ‘Court Watch’, although ‘public record’, also invades privacy (one could argue, easily)… names of accused, retention of  names of “vics”.

          So, should I choose to wear a Go-Pro in a public space, and it discloses a crime, should that be inadmissible in court?  That would be surveillance, used by ‘the regime’ in place…

          Right now, seems like some like some surveillance, but not others… perhaps another line should be drawn to ensure ‘civil liberty’?  A person has the right to own a firearm.  If they use it to harm another, there are consequences.  A surveillance camera is like a transit/total station (surveyors’ tools, high resolution, can be used anywhere)… transits/total stations are often used to protect property rights… the vernacular for a transit/total station, is the “gun”.

          This issue is not simple.

          “Rules of the Game” are needed, to be sure… and cost/benefit analysis is definitely needed, as well… if those two criteria are met, I’m neutral.

          This issue is not simple.

  3. Alan Miller

    I think if the city wants to do this, they need to have an actual study done by a consultant who is not affiliated with law enforcement and vetted by civil liberties professionals to see if this is worthwhile.

    I am more concerned about putting infrastructure in place that can be misused by another ‘regime’ in the future.  Thus, policies are meaningless.

    Then again, we live in the age of Facebook, where fools (read everyone but me) do it to themselves, readying their personal affiliations for an evil regime.  And I don’t mean Trump.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Ok… am just paranoid enough to really limit my use of Facebook (like, almost never).

      Another thing really scary… those scammers mining the “surveillance” of personal information… got a call from “microsoft” yesterday,where they actually spoofed my own phone # (el stupido… [or equivalent when you are in India/Pakistan/whatever]) … get similar calls ~ 2-3 years a day… and I’m on both national and state do not call lists…

      I’d like to have the Gov’t be more active to shut the b@#*@&s down… the phone equivalent of a camera… they know there is no surveillance and they prey on folk for money, identity theft, etc.  Those calls have increased mightily over the last 10 years… bet they have taken more from Davis folk (or at least 50% as much) than local criminals… guess that would be an invasion of “privacy” ‘tho… and subject to all sorts of government abuses… current, or future regimes…

      Interestingly, “Transparent California” is one of the richest ‘mother lode’ sources for the scammers.  But I have no say in their records, nor the availability of my records…

      Is fascinating to watch what folk want “Big Brother” to monitor, and what they do not want “watched”… ’tis rocket science…

    2. Robert Canning

      AM says: “I am more concerned about putting infrastructure in place that can be misused by another ‘regime’ in the future.  Thus, policies are meaningless.”

      Policies are only as good as the training, follow-up, and evaluation that accompany them. Good policies can last for years through changes of administration and changing circumstances. In addition to the internal controls, outside monitoring is important. Most recently in Davis we have the surveillance ordinance and moving forward the Police Accountability Commission which needs to be part of the feedback loop for new surveillance items plus the periodic review of surveillance.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Robert… I know folk from Iran, Iraq, and survivors (and descendants) of the Nazi Holocaust… although I am not paranoid about the cameras, I can understand that some are… and, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean there are not folk “out to get you” … the latter is real.

        50 years ago, I’d have been taking a risk attending a ‘black’ church, a synagogue, or a Catholic church in the ‘deep south’… imagine if the “bad guys” (often with local ‘government approval’) had surveillance cameras… so, I can see both sides of the issue of how cameras can be improperly used, and how ‘democratic’ systems can go another way… despite the “rules”…

        Oh, went to the Deep South a couple of years ago, and is FAR different from 50 years ago… visited Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma… no worries, folk seemed very friendly…

        Still, asto the subject at hand, I am neutral if the “rules” are established (and enforced), and the cost/benefit thing is done.

        1. Alan Miller

          Well, exactly.  In the short term, I agree with RC.  My concern is long term, when there is a totalitarian regime, and ‘trusting’ Americans have put in place the very infrastructure of our downfall.  Yes, not directly descendant of holocaust survivors, but other branches of the family were wiped out.  I am therefore not on Facebook (self-associating in massive database easily accessed by future regime – really stupid).

        2. David Greenwald

          Bill – I have spent much of my time reading up on things like the FBI, Hoover, Attica, the murder of Fred Hampton based on relative recent releases of formerly classified FBI files and would argue that we were a lot closer to some of these regimes than we wanted to believe.  After all, the FBI and Chicago police conspired to murder Fred Hampton because they saw him as a rising leader in the black community.  The FBI regularly sandbagged or attempted to sandbag dissent.  The only reason we learned about what the FBI was the Media break in and the Church committee reports.

          You can say, that was 50-plus years ago, but what scares the hell out of me is the amount of information available now as compared to then and how easy it would be for someone like Hoover to exploit that – maybe they already are and we don’t know it.

        3. Bill Marshall

          You missed my point David… another poster did not understand why folk would resist the concept… your 12:36 post would have been better directed to Robert. Clearly, not me…

          Alan “got” my point, and confirmed…

        4. Bill Marshall

          Alan… your concerns regarding “being hoisted on one’s own petard” are acknowledged. Putting in place a tool that may be a two-edged sword, depending who has the sword in hand. A sword is a tool… that can be misused.

          I don’t think the cameras are a “bomb”, but I understand the concerns of others.  There needs to be more analyses before I am moved to neutral.  But the “sky is falling” thing (cameras are the devil incarnate!), I find more than a little melodramatic.

          The concerns must be addressed, but may not be completely allayed.  And, I’m OK with that.

  4. Tia Will

    After reading the article and the comments as well as having heard the discussion at City Council, I cannot help but feel that we are leaping into the “weeds” before even assessing the basic precepts:

    1. Are the cameras needed?

    2. Are they effective in meeting clearly stated goals? For example, the mayor’s perception that they are for prevention.

    3. Are they cost-effective as compared with other means of meeting each identified goal?

    4. Do they have less undesired consequences than other possible means of meeting each goal?

    Only when we have addressed the basic premises should we move on to the details of policy and best practice.


    1. Bill Marshall

      Good questions.

      As to #2, there are many accounts of fake red-light violation cameras (not really cameras) being deployed (and signed), and the violation rate went way down… the “idea” that they are present has actually worked quite well in prevention.

      With that caveat, pretty much agree, Tia.

  5. Ron Oertel

    If it were simple, it would be an easy vote.  But again, I ask, what’s the major benefit?

    The same reason for the proliferation of door-bell/house cameras, cameras in stores, body-cam and cell-phone recordings of police activity, etc. Are those all a complete waste of time and money, and used for nefarious purposes?

    Typical Davis “non-issue”. The Davis police are not the FBI, from 50 years ago.

    If you want to know what “normal” people are concerned about, take a look at the Enterprise regarding the recent multi-person arrest for burglary, recent late-night holdups/car jackings, laptops stolen from students in coffee shops, car break-ins and bicycle thefts, etc. (Not to mention the murder of a police officer, earlier this year.)

    Cameras don’t necessarily have to specifically “identify” a person, to help police solve crimes under investigation.  License plates, general descriptions of vehicles and people can help solve such crimes.  Especially when the same individuals repeat their crimes, as part of a pattern.

    Most people are too “boring” in their everyday lives for the police (or anyone else) to be concerned about (e.g., when they’re in a parking lot).  You can view such activity directly (without cameras), if you’d like.

    You’re lucky if the police even have time to look at the videos.


    1. David Greenwald

      There are several differences. (1) Not a public place. (2) The camera is in close proximity to the door and therefore you avoid the problem of identification, (3) you have a limited scope and proximity.

      DPD is not the FBI, but again, where is the benefit – I watch these videos all the time in court, they don’t have a huge amount of value for what they are trying to use it for.

      1. Ron Oertel

        “Private” cameras are routinely used by the police, and the videos are routinely shown on the news.

        Such recordings often show what’s occurring beyond the property, itself.

        I don’t think your observation can support a conclusion. Recordings may be “part” of an investigation – and not an investigation in-and-of themselves.

        The FBI examples you’ve discussed predate the widespread use of cameras.

        Cameras are simply another tool, like DNA analysis – which also didn’t exist back then.  And thank goodness for cell-phones, which have allowed average citizens to record activities by other citizens and the police.

        It takes a lot of imagination to envision how a parking lot camera is of any concern to anyone other than those planning to commit a crime.  And yeah – on the face of it, it will likely deter crime, and/or help solve it. (Or, would you require a in-depth study, in order to agree with something so obvious?)

  6. Jim Frame

    transits/total stations are often used to protect property rights…


    They can also be used to voyeuristically follow attractive passersby.  (How do I know this?  Well, I was young once and spent a lot of time behind a gun, even some of it on the beach at Santa Cruz.)

    I wonder if the price point on high-res surveillance cameras has reached a point where parking lot video can provide more reliable identification of criminals.  Assuming the CC comes up with workable policy, I’d like to see a test installation of high-res cameras at one of the high-incident city lots to see if the cost/benefit ratio works.


    1. David Greenwald

      Something really funny (depending on your perspective), attorneys have told me they will also see policy officers following attractive women with their body cameras.

    2. Bill Marshall

      Yes, Jim… I took CE 10 (UCD), and was glad they had us practice on the Quad, in spring.  Some of the ‘shots’ that should have taken 20 seconds (for rookies) took a minute or two… been there, done that… on both ends of the ‘gun’.

      As to ‘well, I was young once…’ @ 60 plus, it still has crossed my mind when I’m running the ‘gun’… hope that will be true 20 years from now, if I’m running the instrument… I may be old, but I’m not dead…

  7. Ron Glick

    The police were investigating a crime near a friend’s home while I was visiting. One of the things they did was canvass the homeowners in the area to see if they had any video.

    In Orwell’s 1984 the camera was in Winston Smith’s apartment not out in a public space.

    Seems to me if there is an area with high crime rates we could use cameras to try to get the situation under control but I think the rules should be that you must have physical or other evidence for a conviction not simply a picture.

    In Chalottesville a group of violent Neo-Nazi’s were indicted because they kept showing up in videos at different violent crime scenes. Nobody has claimed misconduct by the Feds in that situation.

    In Hong Kong the protesters all wear masks. If we were in China we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.


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