In Focus

Here's some clarity on the issue of cameras in city neighborhoods.






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Griffin-Nolan, Ed
Date published: November 23, 2010

Last Wednesday, Nov. 17, just three blocks from the spot where the police chief and the mayor were holding a press conference to talk about public safety and the placement of surveillance cameras on the West Side, a 17-year-old Syracuse boy was being stabbed by a 16-year-old acquaintance. The police announced an arrest later that same day. The arrest was not due to footage captured on a camera; it was because somebody wasn't afraid to name the suspect. That's community policing, and almost everyone agrees that relationships trump technology any day when it comes to keeping the public safe.

Since Halloween the community has been sickened by a spate of shootings, many of them on the West Side. On the day the young man was stabbed, Chief Frank Fowler and Mayor Stephanie Miner had come to the neighborhood to announce that a survey conducted by the police themselves showed that most of the neighbors thought the cameras were a really good idea. By their numbers, 96 percent of the residents of the area wanted surveillance cameras and thought it would make them safer in their homes.

Statisticians and pollsters could have a field day listing the many flaws in the methodology of the police survey. The cops went around and asked the neighbors if they wanted surveillance cameras on their streets, the place where 23 percent of the city's shots are fired, and the people overwhelming said yes. That's like going to bars in the Bronx wearing your Yankee cap and asking which is your favorite baseball team. All that aside, the mayor and the chief have a good point: We need to do whatever it takes to make those streets safe.

Unscientific surveys tend to back up the mayor's point of view. Second District Common Councilor Pat Hogan, who represents the area at City Hall, says he walked up and down Seymour Street knocking on doors and "every one of the people I spoke with want the cameras."

I spend most of my days in that neighborhood myself, and the people on the street aren't worried about the cameras, they're worried about the guns.

"What people don't get," says Hogan, standing on Otisco Street, "is that most of the people here are hardworking people holding down two low-income jobs to support their families." He dismisses those who marched on City Hall to oppose the cameras as outside agitators. "The people here don't have time to attend meetings, they're working and taking care of their kids. You want to talk about their rights, what about their right to have their grandchildren visit? I have older people tell me they can't have their grandchildren visit them at home, because it isn't safe."

The debate about the cameras is similar to the national debate about getting patted down or having our bodies scanned electronically before we get on airplanes. Are we willing to put up with a bit of inconvenience, surrender a bit of privacy, in order to reduce the threat of a terrorist taking down a plane, or a gunman shooting at a street corner while children walk the street?

The privacy and liberties issues involved here shouldn't be dismissed, but they have to be weighed against the objective. Some of the complaints about the video cameras border on the silly. One distinguished gentleman noted at the rally outside City Hall that he did not want to be on camera when he kissed his wife. I could understand his reluctance to be filmed if he were kissing someone else's wife, but why this public display of affection is objectionable is beyond me. If that is your concern, you better not go to a Syracuse University basketball game, because that Kiss Cam could sneak up on you at any moment, and Big Brother would have another slam dunk.

It's not often that I find myself nodding in agreement when I listen to Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick. But Fitzpatrick, speaking on the radio one morning as I drove to work, made a simple point. "Would it be legal," he asked, "if we put two police officers on each street corner, and asked them to write down everything they saw?" How different would that be, asked the DA, from placing cameras on those same street corners? Not very different, it would seem.

The fact is that we are on camera much of the time. At Wegmans, at the bank, at the gas station-cameras are there, and they can be made available to the police at any time. Not to mention the density of cell phone cameras in every public space. These days your chances of ending up as an extra in a YouTube clip are a lot higher than your risk of being on a police camera. Cameras are everywhere, and our lives outside our homes are more transparent than ever before.

That's the reality. We're all on candid camera. So for the sake of public safety, let the cameras roll.

But here's the question for the mayor and the chief: If you want the public to trust you with footage of what we are doing on Geddes Street, how about you open up a bit, too, and make the internal workings of the SPD more transparent? Public cooperation, as you've said, is the key to successful law enforcement. When the public has a beef with police behavior, that complaint should be handled publicly as well. You can't tell us it's OK to smile for the camera and then hide when it's your turn before the lens.

Read Ed Griffin-Nolan's award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times.

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