Opinion
 

When good times roll, must crime cameras roll, too?

By Mark Moseley, The Lens opinion writer |

I trust you did something unstructured and excessive during Carnival. That’s the reason for the season, right?

The morning parades after Mardi Gras are noticeably less festive. Everyone’s back in their regular costumes, congregating together to receive ashen foreheads instead of colorful beads. It’s a time for personal reflection. And while I agree that it’s good to look within from time to time and audit one’s personal baggage, I don’t want the authorities conducting their own assessments.

Forbes reports:

Newly uncovered documents show that as early as 2006, the Department of Homeland Security has been planning pilot programs to deploy mobile scanning units that can be set up at public events… along with mobile x-ray vans capable of scanning pedestrians on city streets.

One project … would mount backscatter x-ray scanners and video cameras on roving vans, along with other cameras on buildings and utility poles, to monitor groups of pedestrians, assess what they carried, and even track their eye movements. In another program, the researchers were asked to develop a system of long range x-ray scanning to determine what metal objects an individual might have on his or her body at distances up to thirty feet.

If they wanted to, a Police truck could efficiently scan tens of thousands of people along parade routes during Carnival. Everyone’s already lined up and facing the scanner. It wouldn’t matter if some are tourists and others are locals. The FBI has computers to sort all that out.

All the more reason to masque, I suppose, or don a lead-coated Tin Man costume.

During parade lulls, we notice the helicopter searchlights above us. I wonder what new toys might be in the pipeline for our spies in the skies?

WSVN TV out of Miami reports:

The Miami-Dade Police Department recently finalized a deal to buy a drone, which is an unmanned plane that is equipped with cameras. Drones have been used for years in Iraq and Afghanistan in the war against terror.

“It gives us a good opportunity to have an eye up there. Not a surveilling eye, not a spying eye. Let’s make the distinction. A surveilling eye to help us to do the things we need to do, honestly, to keep people safe,” said Miami-Dade Police Director James Loftus.

Thanks for clearing that up, Chief.  It’s always nice when officials preemptively assure us that they will use advanced surveillance technology “honestly.”

Homeland Security demands such vigilance. Once upon a time, we were told that we needed to invade Iraq because it was better to fight the terrorists “over there” rather than “over here.” Now we hear that they are infiltrating and crossing our borders, thus we need to compile digital dossiers on all U.S. citizens.

The Washington Post’s must-read article “Monitoring America”, discusses the homeland security funds Memphis received because it was deemed an important river port whose infrastructure needed protection.

The DHS helped Memphis buy surveillance cameras that monitor residents near high-crime housing projects, problematic street corners, and bridges and other critical infrastructure. It helped pay for license plate readers and defrayed some of the cost of setting up Memphis’s crime-analysis center. All together it has given Memphis $11 million since 2003 in homeland security grants, most of which the city has used to fight crime.

“We have got things now we didn’t have before,” said Memphis Police Department Director Larry Godwin, who has produced record numbers of arrests using all this new analysis and technology. “Some of them we can talk about. Some of them we can’t.”

Since there hasn’t been a solid terrorism case in Memphis yet, the equipment’s greatest value has been to help drive down city crime. Where the mobile surveillance cameras are set up, criminals scatter, said Lt. Mark Rewalt, who, on a recent Saturday night, scanned the city from an altitude of 1,000 feet.

Flying in a police helicopter, Rewalt pointed out some of the cameras the DHS has funded. They are all over the city, in mall parking lots, in housing projects, at popular street hang-outs. “Cameras are what’s happening now,” he marveled.

Well, in the past few years cameras have been increasingly “happening” to New Orleanians, too. From former Technology Chief Greg Meffert’s crime camera scam to the multiplying traffic  cameras at Crescent City intersections, we’ve become more used to the idea of being monitored while in public. The trend toward increased surveillance is clear: rarely is there a referendum on these measures, and rarely do they get rolled back after being deployed (although traffic cameras have been turned off in Jefferson Parish for interesting reasons).

As new monitoring toys are invented, authorities will find ways to implement them. Take, for example, the NOPD’s adoption of tasers, which are stun guns outfitted with automatic digital cameras. At my old blog, I broke the news about the local police testing and issuing tasers to officers during the 2008 Christmas season. To my knowledge, no public debate preceded this change in policy.

On Sunday night, the Krewe of Eris clashed with police, and according to witnesses multiple “tasings” occurred. Some of the facts about the incident are unclear, but presumably a lot taser cameras got footage of the fracas.

If not for the city’s budget challenges, I suspect the current NOPD leadership would be vying for additional surveillance technology. And this worries me. I’m concerned about the surveillance state taking hold in New Orleans — no doubt under the rubric of “safety” — and exploiting Carnival-time rituals that bring us together in the streets. So, my sober reflection this Wednesday is on how we can resist this  surveillance trend before it becomes a fait accompli. When the good times roll, do we really need crime cameras to be rolling as well?

How about we let Carnival remain a time of carefree abandon, and leave the paranoia and data aggregation to Memphis and Miami.

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  • Sarabeth

    We laughed off our thoughts as paranoia one parade as one of the mobile command trucks had such a bright light that we assumed we were being filmed or at least scanned to see if any of the crowd had outstanding warrants. Seems like we weren’t so paranoid at all.

  • Beth

    One strategy is to survey the surveillance state. We have more cameras than they do. I’m not suggesting that evens the playing field or even addresses the root violation, but it offers some hope of keeping the record honest.

  • jeffrey

    “We have got things now we didn’t have before,” said Memphis Police Department Director Larry Godwin, who has produced record numbers of arrests using all this new analysis and technology. “Some of them we can talk about. Some of them we can’t.”

    The municipal government of an American city is deploying technology that affects the daily lives of its citizenry which it “can’t talk about”. I don’t know where to begin with the implications there. Try this one minor point. Imagine a New Orleans city budget with an entire section of expenditures that “we can’t talk about.”

  • SEO

    I can not find it on the web, but I remember reading in the times-pic from a couple years ago, a woman was detained on St. Charles ave parade route for setting off dirty bomb sniffing equipment. She had had chemo treatment earlier that week.