Crowdsourcing Surveillance? Newark, N.J.’s New Policing Program Raises Concern

Dozens of surveillance cameras throughout the city have been opened to the public in the hopes that fresh eyes will spot crimes in progress. But civil rights advocates see a problem: racial profiling.

by Jonathan Lai, Philly.com / May 14, 2018
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(TNS) — You never know who’s watching. And in New Jersey’s biggest city, that might be a problem.

Newark has installed dozens of surveillance cameras around the city and is giving the public access to the live footage, asking people to call in anonymous tips based on what they see. It’s like a town watch program, except online and accessible to anyone with a computer and internet connection.

“The mission is to help reduce crime and help get our residents involved in engaging the police,” Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka said in an interview.

By dramatically increasing the number of virtual eyes and ears on the physical streets, Baraka said, the program will allow residents to help monitor their homes and neighborhoods, involving the public in keeping the city safe. As in other urban areas in New Jersey and across the country, crime in Newark fluctuates by year but is often concentrated in specific neighborhoods. The surveillance program’s aim is twofold: stopping or solving crimes while serving as a deterrent and helping to lower Newark’s crime rate, which is among the highest in the state.

The 62 cameras were installed in recent months and went live April 26. The next day, 662 people logged into the site, the mayor’s office said. The first 60 days are a test phase, Baraka said, with the ultimate goal of installing about 300 cameras across the city.

The project, which will cost about $1 million this year, is funded largely by state and federal grants. The city believes that is money well spent and Baraka said he’s hopeful that the program will accomplish its goals and improve the quality of life in Newark.

But the program has drawn criticism from civil liberties advocates, who cite privacy concerns and worry about the collection of data on people’s movements and interactions with others.

“We are engaging in a mass surveillance scheme that the people, not the police, do policing work,” said Amol Sinha, the head of the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU. “It’s going to create a concern where every move of every neighbor is going to be able to be tracked by anybody who wants to watch. So if I am leaving my home every day at 9 a.m., people are going to know my patterns. People are going to know when my home is empty, people are going to know when I’m on vacation.”

Many of the cameras are stationary and cover intersections. A few automatically pan back and forth across an area. Some show storefronts and residents’ homes.

“It’s maybe good intentions, but it certainly seems like there are some unintended consequences of having this sort of a scheme in place,” Sinha said. And while the cameras are set up in public places, he said, “the concern is there is a fundamental difference between me being able to go outside and stand on a street corner and see what’s going on and the police recording every single move 24/7 and broadcasting it live on camera for everybody to access. I think the scale of it is what’s incredibly concerning.”

An even broader concern, criminal justice and law experts said, is what happens when a noble ambition meets the messy realities of policing. Even when the program works exactly as it should — well-meaning people watching for suspicious behavior and calling it in — racial biases could come into play.

“We know people of color are stopped and frisked at higher rates, stopped and ticketed at higher rates... This opens them up to the potential for more criminalization of everyday life, which is these small, lifestyle-type crimes that in some ways can escalate,” said Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a criminal justice professor at Temple University. “How much do you in some ways harass a community, surveil a community, put them under constant lock and key so they’re treated like outlaws in their own community? How much do you do that and keep the legitimacy of the police force?”

Van Cleve and others pointed to a number of high-profile incidents in which police were called to investigate reports of suspicious activity by people of color.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the prominent Harvard University professor, was trying to force open the door to his own house when a neighbor called police about a potential burglary, leading to his arrest. Darren Martin, a former White House staffer, was moving into a new home in New York when he was stopped and questioned by police after a neighbor called to report a potential burglary. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun when Cleveland police received a call reporting “a guy with a gun” and shot him within seconds of their arrival, killing him.

Jerry Ratcliffe, a criminal justice professor at Temple University, said he worries that such incidents will only increase when police encourage the public to watch surveillance footage and call in behavior they see as suspicious, without training or police experience.

“I’m seeing — and I think a number of people are seeing — an increasing number of situations where people of color are having police arrive because members of the public see something they think is criminal, but it’s just people standing on a street corner,” he said.

Newark’s program requires easy registration, no more than a minute or two, using Twitter, Facebook, Google, or an email address. Baraka said the program is “intended for people who live in the city,” though there are no geographic limits for users to access the site.

Once logged in, users are presented with a map showing the placement of 62 cameras around the city and a list of them on the left-hand side. Select a camera and a small window appears. The video can be made larger or full-screen.

Surveillance cameras are widely used by police in many cities, both to solve crimes and as a deterrent. The cameras currently available to the public in Newark are all located at sites that previously had surveillance cameras accessible only to police.

What’s new in Newark is the ability to make the cameras available to the public in real time. (A handful of other cities have considered doing so, but ultimately decided against it.) Newark calls the program Citizen Virtual Patrol and touts it as a virtual version of a neighborhood watch or town watch program.

But the effectiveness of such programs is unclear, and participation isn’t universal. And when citizens feel empowered to take the law into their own hands, experts said, the consequences can be devastating.

George Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch coordinator when he spotted Trayvon Martin, followed him, and shot him to death in Florida.

Now imagine Zimmerman watching from his computer for anything he deems suspicious, said Adnan A. Zulfiqar, a law professor at Rutgers-Camden.

“He sees this young black male walking with his hoodie in the neighborhood … and he’s like, I’m going to head out there and check it out and I’ll keep an eye on him until the police get there. You can have that type of scenario,” Zulfiqar said. “Or George Zimmerman is monitoring Newark and he calls up his buddy Jim and he says, ‘Hey, I’ve been watching Newark, there’s some suspicious guy on X or Y block, why don’t you go out there, make sure you’re strapped, and make sure that guy doesn’t go anywhere until the police get there.

“I mean, you’re just creating volatile situations,” he said. “You’re essentially enabling an army of George Zimmermans.”

Baraka, the mayor, scoffed at such criticism. Residents support the program, he said, and are more concerned about crime that goes unsolved than about the potential for racial bias in policing.

“What I’m worried about is murder and violence and crime that happens to black and brown people in our communities,” he said, adding that his concerns about police violence and racial profiling are best addressed through training and community policing. “We’re going to continue to do those things, but I’m not going to take tools from the police department simply because we fear people will use it in a racist manner.”

Baraka did not deny that policing can have racial overtones. In 2014, a Justice Department investigation found that police officers in Newark had engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests and the use of excessive force. This, federal authorities said, disproportionately affected minorities. Two years later, the city pledged a series of reforms, including improved officer training, that are still being monitored by the federal government.

Police officers will play an important role in the new surveillance program, Baraka said. When someone calls in a tip based on the camera footage, a police staffer will review the footage before passing the information along, he said, providing a trained set of eyes.

Dorothy E. Roberts, a law professor and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania whose work often explores issues of race, said there are legitimate public safety reasons for asking for residents’ help — but also legitimate concerns.

“Whenever you hear about, ‘Well, this is required for safety,’ look at whose rights are being violated in order to protect whose rights,” she said. “Surveillance is not the way to make communities safer. The way to make communities safer is to provide the resources and support that communities need to flourish.”

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