Is Surveillance Tech Widening America’s Racial Divide?

New technologies like doorbell cameras, video surveillance systems and crime-reporting platforms are playing a role in people of color being reported as “suspicious” while they are simply going about their daily lives.

by Naomi Ishisaka, The Seattle Times / October 28, 2019
Shutterstock/Mr.Suchat

(TNS) — It happened 2,000 miles away, but the Oct. 12 killing of Atatiana Jefferson hit the Rev. Kelle Brown hard.

Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black woman, was in her Fort Worth, Texas, home playing video games with her nephew when she was shot by a white police officer, who was called to the home by a concerned neighbor. The officer was later arrested and charged with murder. Brown, the lead pastor of Seattle’s Plymouth Church, said Jefferson’s killing left her deeply in mourning.

“I didn’t know Atatiana, but I feel like she could have been my sister. She could have been me,” she said. Brown said she no longer feels safe being out at night or leaving her windows open due to fear of neighborhood social-media reports and 911 calls of “suspicious” people leading to police killings like Jefferson’s.

“I can tell you, as one who’s afraid to walk in my own neighborhood, that it’s plain terror,” Brown said.

Jefferson’s death was the latest in a string of police killings that expose the gulf in perception of suspicion, crime, policing and justice between communities of color and white communities. That gulf has widened as residents of newly gentrified enclaves have started to use social platforms such as Nextdoor, Facebook community groups and Neighbors (a companion app to Amazon’s Ring) to report on people who they feel don’t belong.

Often it seems not a lot has changed since the Kerner Commission said in 1967, “our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white — separate and unequal.”

In a 2014 report by the Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit, 68% of Black respondents said the U.S. justice system is biased against Black people compared with 25% of whites. The report went on to say that white perceptions of overall fairness led to greater levels of punitive sentencing for people of color.

“Changes in sentence lengths, arrest rates, and prison admission — rather than crime rates — drove the 260% increase in incarceration rates between 1980 and 2010,” the Sentencing Project report said. This, despite the fact that according to Pew earlier this year, the crime rate fell by over 50% over the past 20-plus years — even using the most conservative measurements.

Racial disparities in the larger criminal justice system are mirrored in police killings as well. According to a 2016 analysis by Vox, while people of color are 37% of the U.S. population, they are 63% of unarmed people killed by the police.

Jefferson’s death came 10 days after former Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger received just 10 years for killing Botham Jean in his home. It was two years after the killing of pregnant mom Charleena Lyles, in her home, shook Seattle.

Why do we see things so differently and why can’t we see ourselves in each other more? I often think of a 2014 story in The Washington Post that said 75% of white people have no nonwhite friends. Lack of exposure to different experiences and perspectives coupled with systemic racism and persistent housing and educational segregation could account for some of that gap.

As a non-Black woman of color, my lived experience is shaped by the perception that I am less “threatening” than others who are frequently targeted by neighborhood groups. But after nearly 20 years of living in a fast-gentrifying neighborhood near Seattle’s Seward Park, fear for the safety of my loved ones who do not have that privilege cemented my decision to move to Rainier Beach, a community where my friends and I blend in. I no longer worry that a friend helping me move a TV might show up on Nextdoor as a suspicious person possibly stealing a TV.

These racialized perceptions of guilt, innocence and what makes someone “suspicious” have become supercharged with the emergence of digital platforms, especially Ring’s Neighbors. Now, digital neighborhood watches can post video seconds after any interaction they deem suspicious — from anywhere. Despite widely publicized efforts to rein in racial profiling on the platforms, complaints persist. According to one February analysis of Neighbors by Vice, the majority of reports of “suspicious” people in one sample were people of color.

Shankar Narayan, Technology and Liberty Project director for the ACLU of Washington, finds the addition of cameras to already problematic platforms alarming. “Do we want these surveillance mechanisms to infiltrate [neighborhood message boards] where … we already know that there is rampant racism, [and then add] a profit motive on top of that?”

The profit motive is showing up in disturbing ways. Ring has now partnered with over 500 police departments, allowing police to contact Ring users and ask for surveillance footage. In exchange, Ring provides departments with free or low-cost Ring devices to distribute to residents. Edgewood, in Pierce County, is the only city in Washington that is part of the partnership so far.

This digital panopticon has civil rights advocates worried.

“Amazon really wants to have it both ways,” Narayan said. “They’re both selling a product to customers and then they’re selling access to customer data to law enforcement. But those interests of the customer and law enforcement aren’t always aligned with each other.”

Once the customers are in the system, the platforms can increase the users’ perception of crime in their communities, which drives sales of more devices. Amazon’s Ring, for example, was hiring for a journalist earlier this year to join a “team of news editors” to produce crime stories for the Neighbors platform. Nextdoor already has a partnership with the Seattle Police Department to have police content throughout the platform.

A recent look at one user’s Neighbors incident map in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood showed that of 21 nearby incident reports, all were labeled either “Suspicious,” “Unknown Visitor,” “Crime” or “Safety.” It’s no wonder people think that Seattle is Dying when they see themselves surrounded by threats, even though crime is down in most neighborhoods.

All of this — including technologies ostensibly designed to help people feel safe — leads back to Brown being afraid to walk her dog at night.

“Black lives are at risk … we are not safe,” Brown said. “What we are saying is it’s not a matter of you understanding anymore. … This is about the impact of being so disconnected from one another that you do not believe Black people when they say ‘we are under threat’ and we have been under threat historically and now. And this is in our communities right here, right now in the heart of Seattle.”

©2019 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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