Editorial: Adding municipal surveillance cameras a bad idea in downtown Northampton

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

Published: 9/19/2017 10:02:38 PM

Adding municipal surveillance cameras in downtown Northampton is a bad idea because their intrusiveness outweighs their potential to deter or solve crimes. We urge the Police Department to drop the proposal.

There is no evidence of the need to add more municipal cameras to the existing mix of those already in place at the municipal parking garage, as well as numerous private security cameras used by downtown businesses.

Police Chief Jody Kasper announced in a Facebook post Sept. 7 that she planned a community discussion about the possible use of surveillance cameras by the Police Department to “provide us with a really effective way and more efficient way to combat problems in our downtown area.” Examples she cited include reducing criminal behavior and harassment, improving pedestrian behavior and enhancing traffic accident investigations.

To her credit, Kasper added that she did not want to make a formal request for the money needed to buy and install the cameras — an estimated $70,000 to $100,000 — “without being really thoughtful about addressing some of the concerns that may come up.”

About 100 people attended the community meeting Sept. 13 and most who spoke expressed concerns centering on the cameras’ unwarranted intrusion on privacy when there is little evidence — based on studies in the United Kingdom where they are used extensively — that they are effective in either deterring or solving crimes. Some people also suggested that the money is better spent by beefing up community policing with more officers.

Caroline McDaniel, who owns the ConVino Wine Bar at 101 Armory St., said she is opposed to surveillance cameras. When there is a problem at or near her business, McDaniel said she calls the police. “We are the surveillance.”

Among the most vocal critics is Northampton lawyer William Newman, director of the western regional office of the American Civil Liberties Union. He questioned what evidence the police have that Northampton needs to be turned into “a surveillance state,” adding that “in the absence of a compelling reason for this, that idea is misplaced.”

Newman said among his concerns is the potential use of video by law enforcement agencies outside the city, and the cameras’ general “chilling” effect on First Amendment rights because people could feel uneasy about taking part in or attending protests and rallies downtown.

“I think it’s the worst idea you’ve ever had,” Newman told Kasper.

The ACLU opposes the increasing use of surveillance cameras nationwide except at “specific, high-profile public places that are potential terrorist targets, such as the U.S. Capitol.” In a document titled “What’s wrong with public video surveillance?” the ACLU argues that “like any intrusive technology, the benefits of deploying public video cameras must be balanced against the costs and dangers.”

The ACLU also points out that unlike secret audio recordings — which are prohibited by state law in Massachusetts — there are no similar enforceable rules to limit invasion of privacy or abuse of video recordings. “Rules are needed to establish a clear public understanding of such issues as whether video signals are recorded, under what conditions, and how long they are retained; what the criteria are for access to archived video by other government agencies, or by the public; how the rules would be verified and enforced; and what punishments would apply to violators.”

We agree with the ACLU’s conclusion about public surveillance: “its benefits —preventing at most a few street crimes, and probably none — are disproportionately small” when compared with the cameras producing “subtle but profound changes to the character of our public spaces. When citizens are being watched by the authorities — or aware that they might be watched at any time — they are more self-conscious and less free-wheeling.”

The City Council will weigh those concerns Thursday in considering a resolution introduced by its leadership, President William Dwight and Vice President Ryan O’Donnell, as well as Ward 7 Councilor Alisa Klein. We urge the council to express its nonbinding opposition to “the permanent installation of additional municipally operated surveillance technology in public places in downtown Northampton,” a city that “thrives culturally and economically in part due to a free and open civic atmosphere.”

While that vote will not affect owners of private businesses, who may continue to use security cameras, it will send the message that city officials see no need for “Big Brother” to be watching over Main Street.


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