March 12, 2008

Racine surveillance program needs oversight

Mayor Gary Becker and Police Chief Kurt Wahlen revealed this week that the police department will have the capability of installing 60 video cameras throughout Racine's inner city.

What's shocking about this revelation is where it occurred. Becker and Wahlen didn't bring the plan before the City Council or release it to the public. They mentioned it in passing during a meeting with The Journal Times Editorial Board.

You can watch the video here. Wahlen mentions the video cameras about halfway through the talk, around the 15-minute mark. There's a brief follow-up question around the 8-minute mark. And that's it.

So let's be clear about what happened. Arguably the two most powerful men in the city revealed that they intend to monitor and record Racine's inner city with video cameras. They revealed this in front of our local newspaper's publisher and editor, and a handful of reporters.

The result: Nothing. The JT didn't report the news in its story on the meeting. They didn't mention it on their website or in the next day's paper.

I find this difficult to understand. A local government creating a video surveillance system of its residents is among the most important and serious decisions a community can make. It raises privacy and personal liberty questions. It demands protections from abuse of power by police and politicians. And it certainly should be a public decision.

Wahlen acknowledged these concerns during the meeting when he noted there were "Big Brother issues" with the cameras. But he explained away the concerns by saying most people in the affected areas would like having the cameras. Has he asked them? What about the mayor? Has he walked near 12th and Grand and Hamilton and Geneva asking local residents if they want the police department video taping their lives on a daily basis?

The irony of the meeting was Wahlen and Becker announcing the cameras at the same time they're trying to sell the public that crime in Racine is at a 20-year low. If that's the case, do we really need police surveillance of city streets?

I have no opinion on the cameras. Yeah, they seem creepy. But cities around the countries are spending millions of dollars installing cameras in the streets, and if they allow police to breakup incidents without making arrests or people getting hurt, them maybe they'll help. (Though that's certainly in question).

If we are going to install them, it should be done carefully and with public assurances that the cameras will not be abused by people in power. The City Council and the Police and Fire Commission should have full oversight over the program, including public votes on where the cameras will be located and how they will be used.

The JT Editorial Board meeting raised some concerns:

1. The police chief and mayor were remarkably casual about the idea. They mentioned the idea in passing, and seemed barely concerned about the implications. Maybe it was acting on their part. Maybe the meeting was designed to float the idea around a bunch of rah-rah talk about lower crime and COP Houses. The issue is more serious than they let on.

2. It was concerning to hear the mayor say they were working with SC Johnson to install cameras near the company's 14th Street campus. The city should support its major employers and help them prosper in the city. But having the mayor and police chief work with a company to monitor the surrounding neighborhood is highly questionable.

3. What is the JT thinking? How is this not a story? Former Journal Times Publisher Richard Johnston ran a solid Editorial Board meeting. He created a professional atmosphere, demanded intelligent questions from the board, and made sure reporters followed up on important issues. Today's Editorial Board is the shell of its former self. The paper doesn't endorse in local races (because it required too many meetings!) and its editorials seem barely relevant on local issues. Now, it's handed a major story by the police chief and mayor, and no one reports about it? New Publisher Rick Parrish and Editor Steve Lovejoy need to rebuild the JT's editorial board from the ground up. The current board is dysfunctional.

The problem with surveillance programs is the public doesn't know how they will be used. Police say it will help them break up crime, and maybe they will. But what happens when facial recognition software improves and people can be ID'd walking down the street? Or license plates can be read from the cameras? Or a neighborhood organizes a protest of city policies? How selective will police use video? Will they target individuals? What about drunk drivers leaving Downtown bars? Will the videos be available to the public? Will the program be expanded to all neighborhoods? Or will only the poor be monitored 24 hours a day?

Surveillance programs require a great deal of trust in city and police officials. Before the public hands over that trust, the strongest possible safeguards are needed to minimize the potential for abuse. The technology is changing so quickly that we need broad oversight of this issue from the outset. We need assurances that a surveillance program will help the public, not imprison it under the watchful eyes of the powerful.


California isn't having public discussions over surveillance cameras, according to the ACLU.


  1. The courts have ruled that out in the open, is public domain. No one has any expectation of privacy in public. read stolen plates, arrest wanted criminals, who cares??????? I think everyone is getting all hepped up over nothing. I see the critical issue as "up TO 60 cameras". In other words, a wishful idea that got blown out of proportion as usual.

  2. Please go to the conner of 6th and Frank or outside of the 100 Blk of Howland see with your own eyes why we like have the cameras.
    I hate to say this perhaps if you lived where crime is a everyday thing you would understand better.