Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Civilians Run City-Wide Surveillance in Pennsylvania Town

Okay, Switched readers, here's a great debate. Lancaster, Pennsylvania is known as the home of Hershey's, the town where Peeps was invented, and the American city with the highest amount of surveillance per capita. Lancasterians have been subjected to a community-wide program that installs closed-circuit cameras on nearly every street, hosting more outdoor cameras than both San Francisco and Boston, reports LATimes.com. The Dutch Pennsylvanian city considers itself to be a prime candidate for such security measures, considering the amount of tourism its attractions receive.

The argument is that, while this is a small city, Lancaster was plagued with four murders last year, and the surveillance system helped solve one of them. Post-9/11, a local crime commission suggested that cameras might help make the city safer. In response, local businesspeople, municipal officials, and otherwise concerned citizens formed a non-governmental group called the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition.

With money raised from private donors and foundations, the recorders were installed and local citizens hired to keep watch. Although the coalition's executive director, Joseph Morales, is also a city councilman, no governmental organizations were directly involved in these decisions. By the same token, the coalition only employees civilians and does not answer to the city government.

Last year, the number of cameras hit 165, and surprisingly, the crime rate rose. Police explained that this was because surveillance more frequently caught lesser crimes -- infractions that often go unnoticed. The way the system works, explained Doug Winglewich, a camera operator with a degree in public administration, is that workers monitor 911 calls to assist in gathering license plates and silently watch city blocks in order to call in suspicious activity.

On the program's ethical boundaries, executive director Morales told the L.A. Times, "The divorce lawyer who wants video of a husband coming out of a bar with his mistress, we won't do it." At present, the coalition does not abide by any explicit ethical guidelines, although Morales says that he is currently drafting them.

While the program has led to a lot of valid arrests, it has also received sharp criticism for infringing on citizens' rights to privacy. Lancaster mayor and self-professed civil libertarian J. Richard Gray has put the coalition -- in his words -- "on a short leash," and Pennsylvanian American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Mary Catherine Roper calls it a "phenomenally bad idea."

Even the seemingly supportive police chief cited George Orwell and 'Big Brother' when he described the project to the Times.

As interconnectivity grows and technology progresses, cities are going to find themselves faced more frequently with dilemmas between privacy and watchdog methods.

If the surveillance is accessible and its results useful, should cities resort to monitoring its residents, even if that means infringing on crucial American rights? Or is the right to safety the most fundamental of all? The debate rages on.

[From: LATimes.com]

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