Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Big Brother 'R Us

THE Would YOU be willing to monitor police cameras on your home computer as part of a virtual citizen patrol? Like George Orwell's Big Brother in a way, but really a more like what I like to call "Little Brothers," in their own homes, in pajamas, watching you and me walking on streets, through alleys, wherever there's a police camera. According to Chi-Town Daily News, residents of Chicago's 22nd Police District "are being asked by Chicago police to volunteer to monitor cop surveillance cameras." People around Chicago are interested in this idea, either because they like it or because they oppose it. Chi-Town notes that the police cameras we see see on some street corners, "formally called Police Observation Devices, or PODs, are mounted on streetlights in neighborhoods and used by police to spot illegal activity, including loitering, drug dealing and other crimes. City police Officer Joe Hurley announced that police are looking for POD monitors during a recent Beat 2222 CAPS meeting." More... The faithful reader partially quoted Harrington's comment: I work on the computer all day and I would be happy to keep an extra window open on my computer screen to help monitor our local PODs and report street crime. Our faithful reader adds that this is the best suggestion he has seen in a long time, "better than CAPS bullshit for sure." Well maybe so. Probably, however, not. To be fair to Mr. Harrington, let's reproduce his full comment here (emphasis added): I read the story on 22nd District's call for residents to help monitor their surveillance cameras. It's a small step forward and a nice gesture by the police toward involving and collaborating with residents on crime fighting. It's also a better idea than using highly paid staffers or sworn officers to do this. However, it's unrealistic and an inefficient use of time to ask people to come to a local police station to monitor the live video feeds from police cameras. The technology exists to cheaply put those transmissions up on the web and give secure access to a select pool of residents to watch for crime and see what's happening on the streets. The idea is the next step up from the current trend of those many people who keep a police radio scanner on in the background. I work on the computer all day and I would be happy to keep an extra window open on my computer screen to help monitor our local PODs and report street crime. With respect to Mr. Harrington, there are flaws in his proposal for home monitoring of PODs. First, what criteria would be used to create a "select pool of residents," these Little Brothers, to monitor PODs in their homes? What kind of background checks would individuals be subjected to? Will gang members with no criminal records slip through and be able to tip off their comrades rather than the police? Will illegal aliens be allowed to monitor PODs? Second, although Mr. Harrington (and others, I'm sure) would be "happy to keep an extra window open" on their home computers "to help monitor our local PODs," how many of those select pool of residents would be able to get any work done AND monitor the PODs? To monitor the PODs to full efficiency, the human monitors should devote their full attention, not just some of it, to the POD action. Humans need to go to the bathroom now and then, or answer a phone or the front door. What might be missed in those minutes away from the computer screen? What liability would the city own if a crime was committed in view of a police camera, but no help was called because one of the select human watchers was sitting on the toilet? Third, would the City of Chicago be willing to protect the Little Brothers? What if one is called to testify and is threatened by the defendant or the defendant's family? What if police are accused of wrongful action against an innocent person whose actions were misinterpreted by a Little Brother; would the watcher be liable for damages? Fourth, Craig Gernhardt and I have been urging people for a year now to go out and buy a police scanner so they can know their neighborhood problems better. But the police radio scanner would have little or no relationship to the action on any particular POD. Why not? Because what is heard on the scanner is one of two things: A police officer reporting activity newly discovered (in which case the home POD watcher would be redundant), and the dispatcher passing on information to police officers in the field (in which case, again, the home POD watcher would be redundant in terms of reporting the incident, and the scanner is merely a receiver that the watcher could not broadcast on). The scanner, like the POD, would be ignored for minutes at a time while the home watcher is on the toilet, answering the door, walking the dog, etc. A home POD watching program would open up a Pandora's box of potential problems. Watching the PODs is police business. Let's let the police, the experts, do that. If the CPD wants to invite non-police persons to do police work, they need to rethink their priorities. How about demanding that the Chicago City Council divert some of the millions of dollars wasted every year on wrought iron fencing and Big Belly trash cans to pay for a few more police personnel to monitor the PODs? If Mr. Harrington, or any other Little Brother POD watcher, was in the middle of an urgent work-related task on another window on his computer, would he continue to monitor the POD? He might, but many would not. The police officer at the station would, in theory at least, be able to devote full attention to the POD screen, and if he/she had to go to the toilet, another officer could immediately fill in to monitor the action. As it is, I don't mind having professional police with a degree of official accountability watching me on camera walking down the street. Knowing that private individuals may be watching me is, well, just a bit too Orwellian. Finally, although most police officers are good and trustworthy, some are - to put it politely - less than good. Police departments try, at least officially, to stay out of politics. Without training in the art of observation, and with their own personal biases and political axes to grind, how reliable would John or Jane Doe be as a Little Brother? And what's next? Will CPD be looking for volunteer civilian SWAT members soon? RELATED: Police seek volunteers to monitor surveillance cameras Chicago ... POD Program (CPD web site)