Surveillance and other technologies give police new tools to fight crime. But privacy advocates and civil liberties groups ask: At what price?
Published Aug. 2, 2016
SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — Officer Matt McPhail happened to be at his desk when the first alert went off.
A Nissan sedan had crossed the intersection of San Juan and Truxel where the Sacramento police had just placed one of two custom-built surveillance cameras. The system ID’d the vehicle as stolen.
“I said, ‘Hey, if anybody’s in the area, you know, keep an eye out for this car,’ ” recalls Mr. McPhail, a public information officer for the department. “And a helicopter was in the area and some officers went by and found it.”
That was 2014. The city has since installed 32 police observation devices, or PODs. Now Sacramento – like New York, Houston, Miami, St. Louis, and other cities before it – is looking at the next step: the launch in October of a “real-time crime center,” a central location from which officers could monitor all their existing surveillance technologies, PODs included.
The idea is that consolidating information about criminal activity – from stalking complaints to potential lone wolf terrorist attacks – would make law enforcement more effective at investigating and perhaps preventing some incidents. The process would also promote accountability and transparency at a time of rising tension between police and the black community, providing evidence of both police and suspect behavior during tense encounters, proponents say.
But the technology raises big privacy issues. Already concerned about PODs, privacy advocates are troubled by the prospect of centralizing law-enforcement data, especially in a post-9/11 world where data is being shared more widely across federal, state, and local lines. The technology is already causing a populist backlash.