Columnist Bill Newman: City Council must stand firm on cameras

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

Published: 12/1/2017 10:08:43 PM

Months of intense study, hearings, debate and discussion have followed the Northampton Police Department’s proposal to install permanent, 24/7 surveillance cameras at the city’s main intersection of King, Pleasant and Main streets.

The result is a modest, measured, appropriately amended and carefully crafted “Ordinance establishing restrictions on the use of surveillance technology in public places,” which the City Council on Nov. 16 adopted by a vote of 7-1. The required second vote is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 7.

A major issue surrounding local police surveillance is how other law enforcement entities will access and use it. As Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper has reported, if and when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for example, requests the images the NPD cameras have captured, our Police Department will hand them over.

Police also would likewise supply images to Border and Customs Patrol (BCP), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI and the Commonwealth Fusion Center. Although the local police might not apply face recognition and biometric technology to its photographs, other federal and state law enforcement can and will.

That fact raises a number of disturbing questions: If you were a member of a marginalized community, would you voluntarily go to a place (downtown Northampton) where you knew law enforcement would be surveilling and recording you? Do you think that Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions and ICE were joking when they promised to target immigrants living in sanctuary cities like Northampton? Did you notice that ICE recently put a bull’s-eye on Massachusetts as a sanctuary state? Do you really want to see signs in downtown Northampton prominently announcing “WARNING: YOU ARE NOW UNDER LAW ENFORCEMENT SURVEILLANCE”? As a member of a marginalized community, how would all this make you feel about going downtown?

For me, the issue is personal. In 2017, the local ACLU of Massachusetts office, which I direct, initiated the Immigrant Protection Project of Western Massachusetts (PP). The IPP in various ways tries to ameliorate the brutality of our immigration system. This ordinance supports our work, and we are indebted to the councilors who have worked and voted for its passage.

Fortunately for the decision-making process, the past months of civic engagement on this issue has demonstrated the lack of any necessity for these cameras. We now know that the cameras will not be monitored and will not prevent or deter any crime in progress. The chief has told us this.

The cameras also will not deter any drug dealing or any other criminal or objectionable behavior on the sidewalks because they won’t capture those images. Sure, the cameras might somehow some day assist in some investigation of some crime by providing some derivative, circumstantial evidence if — and only if — some criminal walked, ran, or traveled through the intersection that everyone will know is being surveilled.

Back to the ordinance itself. First, it specifically authorizes the police to continue to use surveillance cameras in each and every way they ever have: for criminal investigations, for large one-day events, in the parking garages and outside the police station. What the legislation requires is City Council approval before more cameras can be installed and turned on.

Cameras are everywhere, I agree. But the ubiquity of cameras does not justify further unwarranted expansion of government-operated and owned surveillance. Data and images that law enforcement can share, use and misuse without any need for a warrant or probable cause or even reasonable suspicion is different in kind from the photographs on your cellphone. In addition, the availability of cellphone cameras and other private recording devices greatly diminishes the need for government ones.

After the City Council hopefully affirms its 7-1 vote, the mayor may well carry out his threat to veto this measure. That would be deeply unfortunate, although that action would fall well within the universe of predictable mayoral actions and is not devoid of practical political considerations.

The council then, in turn, by the necessary two-thirds majority, should override the veto. The yes votes should not change. They are a matter of conscience and principle. The City Council will have demonstrated democracy in action and the importance of the separation of powers.

One caution: The law has a difficult  time keeping up with technology, and so passage of the ordinance will not provide a fix for all time. After all, when a police proposal for 24/7 downtown surveillance cameras comes, can a police request to fund and use drones — or whatever new surveillance technology may become available — be far behind?

Bill Newman, a Northampton lawyer, writes a column published the first Saturday of the month. He is director of the Western Regional Office of the ACLU of Massachusetts. He can be reached at


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