Not-So-Camera Shy: Democrats Hail the Rise of Surveillance

As privacy concerns recede, city Democrats champion more and more security cameras as a universal good.

An NYPD officer watches security camera footage during the Bloomberg era. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

An NYPD officer watches security camera footage during the Bloomberg era. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Last week, Public Advocate Tish James, one of the more prominent liberal Democrats in the city, had an idea. Sexual assaults in subway cars aren’t going away, so Ms. James suggested the cars simply add security cameras to end the crimes.

The financial feasibility of the proposal was immediately questioned–the perpetually cash-strapped Metropolitan Transportation Authority can’t just slap hundreds, if not thousands, of cameras on trains right away–but another potential outcome of the plan was not discussed. If Ms. James’ proposal came to pass, every movement of an individual in a subway car would be videotaped 24 hours a day, adding yet another layer of surveillance to a city that has already seen an explosion of security cameras over the past decade.

“We need cameras in our subway cars especially when 62 percent of the crimes are committed on the train as opposed to 38 percent in the stations,” Ms. James declared at a press conference just outside City Hall. “Why is the largest transportation system in the world–why is New York City not leading the way in terms of safety?”

For even the most progressive Democrats in New York City, the underlying and rarely questioned assumption in 2014 is that more cameras is a universal good. Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with young lawmakers like Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres, have pushed for more security cameras at New York City Housing Authority complexes to curb crime. Mr. de Blasio recently ordered his administration to install 49 new cameras in NYCHA developments, speeding up a process that lagged under the Bloomberg administration. The mayor, along with state lawmakers, also fought to install more cameras on city streets to keep motorists from speeding.

“I understand cameras are not a panacea, but they’re part of the process of fighting crime, and certainly one of the great tools we have to identify if there are criminal elements around,” Mr. de Blasio, a left-leaning Democrat, said in June.

The zeal for surveillance, at least one newspaper opinion piece recently lamented, wasn’t always so pronounced in the city.

“I remember when this was controversial,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus at Hunter College. “It’s interesting that it’s happening now at a time when crime is not rampant. It’s about preventing bad behavior, drunk driving, speeding–it sounds totalitarian. People know they’re being watched, then they’ll behave.”

The recent revelation that the National Security Administration routinely gathers vast amounts of information on millions of Americans who are not suspected of terrorism did little to move the needle among New York’s Democratic establishment. Mr. Sherrill pointed to new research from academics at the University of Michigan and UC Berkeley showing that elected officials often overestimate the conservatism of their constituents as one possible explanation for the Democrats’ relative silence.

Academic studies do not necessarily support Ms. James or Mr. de Blasio’s claims, either. At best, studies have shown, security cameras have a mild effect on reducing crime. At worst, they do nothing.

A 2009 New York University study that tracked crime rates in Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan showed no persuasive evidence that security cameras reduced crime at Peter Cooper Village. There was stronger evidence of a drop in minor crime in Stuyvesant Town.

Previous studies, with few exceptions, were statistically inconclusive. A 2011 study from the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington D.C. found well-placed cameras can effectively reduce crime in certain troubled neighborhoods, though a researcher warned of “diminishing returns,” with each extra camera achieving less than the one installed before.

Public safety experts acknowledge that security cameras can help police solve crimes after they occur. The death of a Staten Island man in NYPD custody two weeks ago led to renewed calls for all police and civilian interactions to be videotaped.

Civil liberties advocates and some academics argue that trading a mild reduction in crime–if this reduction occurs at all–for the loss of privacy is dangerous, even in a post-9/11 society where terrorist attacks are always a possibility.

“Security cameras have been promoted and looked to as the solution to all our problems and, not surprisingly, they’re simply not a panacea,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “They carry with them a whole bunch of baggage in terms of the incursion on privacy rights and the ability to walk around anonymously.”

Ms. James claimed she had spoken with civil liberties advocates about her plan–she promised all security footage not related to the solving of crimes would be destroyed–though Ms. Lieberman could not recall having a conversation with Ms. James. The NYCLU attempted to count the number of security cameras in Manhattan eight years ago, repeating a study undertaken in the 1990s; Ms. Lieberman said the task was eventually abandoned after the sheer number of cameras became too great to count.

In certain neighborhoods, there was a “tenfold” or “thirtyfold” increase in cameras, she said.

For critics of the growing surveillance state, an inexorable camera surge can mean a future where mass quantities of data are harvested for unknown ends.

“Nobody knows essentially what’s going to happen with all the data,” said Setha Low, a professor of anthropology and psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Ms. Low argued that the September 11 attacks may have accelerated the use of cameras in public and private spheres, but the surveillance movement was well underway before September 11, 2001.

“Collecting data to be used at another time … completely undermines the kind of society we’re trying to build in the United States,” she continued. “It’s nothing new. What might be new is the political use of tools as part of a larger agenda of making people feel safe and secure.”