Columnist Jess Johnson: Urges override of mayor’s veto on surveillance ordinance

  • Police Chief Jody Kasper, standing at left, fields a question during a meeting Sept. 13 at the Northampton Senior Center to discuss the use of surveillance cameras in downtown Northampton.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

When Mayor David Narkewicz vetoed the Northampton City Council ordinance restricting surveillance cameras, he framed this veto as a “revision” and a “compromise.”

This framing has been echoed in an editorial in the Gazette (“Surveillance revisions have merit,” Jan. 3) and by columnist Dennis Bidwell (“Start the year by finding common ground,” Jan. 3). These pieces suggest that the mayor’s veto is quite reasonable.

Yet, a closer dissection of the mayor’s proposed ordinance leads to a different conclusion.

For starters, a veto is not a compromise. While the mayor affixed a heavily revised ordinance to the veto, the executive does not have the authority to revise the law at this stage. In vetoing the ordinance and putting forward an alternate version, the mayor proposes to begin the legislative process around the question of surveillance in Northampton anew. 

Moreover, his proposal is not a compromise because while it appears to limit cameras, it in fact expressly allows them. The approval process envisioned by the mayor would grant the executive branch and the police chief extended and ongoing power to propose the installation of new cameras. In doing so, it irrevocably  changes the spirit of the City Council ordinance from one that takes a stand against surveillance to one that permits it.

Also troubling is that the mayor’s version would allow for cameras on and inside of all municipally owned buildings without any prior approval by the City Council. This would include buildings where we vote, and the steps of City Hall, the precise location that is at the heart of our city’s political life. A camera mounted on City Hall could also effectively record the majority of our Main Street. This is possible with current technology.

Further, there is nothing in his version that would enable the City Council to stop the police from using live monitoring, facial recognition and tracking technologies. While Chief Jody Kasper has assured the city that she has no intention to do this, the council would not be able to prevent a future chief from enabling such technology. Once a camera is approved, the way it is deployed is not subject to oversight by the council.

In fact, the mayor’s new ordinance includes no assurances that such changes in the use of the technology would even require the Police Department or the mayor’s office to notify the council, much less the public. And the lack of a sunset provision also means that it will be very difficult to take down cameras once they are installed.

Finally, the mayor’s ordinance contains no safeguards inhibiting federal agencies, including ICE and the FBI, from accessing the footage. As other columnists have made clear (Bill Newman: “Case against surveillance cameras,” Nov. 4), it is not possible to prevent this.

In short, the mayor’s version fails to restrict surveillance or stand up for sanctuary.

Instead, it undermines both the spirit and impact of the City Council ordinance, which limits cameras, makes a statement about our community’s values, upholds our commitment to sanctuary and civil rights, and which already emerged out of a process marked by a commitment to compromise, including the incorporation of revisions suggested by the chief of police.

I urge city councilors to stand by the ordinance and cast their votes for the override.

Jess Johnson, of Florence, is a historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.