ACLU Warns of Surveillance Network Bias Against Minorities

York, Pa., officials are looking to implement a video surveillance network to help bring down crime rates, but critics argue the technology would negatively impact minority communities.

(TNS) — A city-wide surveillance network pitched by York, Pa., City officials would be a tool used by police to disproportionately target Black and brown communities, said a spokesperson for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Lancaster's city-wide video surveillance network, run by the Lancaster Safety Coalition, on which York City officials are considering basing the local system, is a valuable and effective tool in knocking down crime rates, says a 2015 study.

On Monday, York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow announced his desire for a system much like one that's been in place in Lancaster City, which touts more than 150 cameras. Like Lancaster's, York City's surveillance would be run by a private, not-for-profit coalition.

Ultimately, it would lead to volunteers staffing the system to report "suspicious" behavior, which would hit minority communities especially hard, said Alex Domingos, organizer for the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice. "We see over and over again that these proposals increase police interactions with people of color, " he said. "With cameras all over the city, York residents will be under constant watch by an unaccountable 'independent group' tasked with deciding, on a whim, who is 'suspicious.' Instead of deputizing neighbors to spy on each other, we should be investing in addressing the root causes of community harm."

But in a 2015 study published by Millersville University's Center for Public Scholarship and Social Change, researchers found Lancaster City's surveillance system has been effective in terms of policing — at least in the eyes of police and attorneys.

Researchers conducted 24 interviews with police officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys in an attempt to gauge the program's success.

The study noted that the concept of widespread surveillance "is one of deterrence — that people are less likely to commit crime if they know they are being watched."

"Law enforcement personnel are clear in their perceptions that surveillance video is extremely valuable to them in the processes of investigation and prosecution," the study found.

Even Lancaster County's top defense attorney said the the surveillance network has been effective at quashing crime.

Only rarely, though, has it been used to exonerate the wrongly accused, said Chris Tallarico, Lancaster County's chief public defender.

"It can be very helpful to law enforcement to have this surveillance, and it can be helpful if someone is certainly misidentified and it's clearly not them," he said. "For the sporadic times it's been exonerating for people, it's much more a tool for police enforcement."

Lancaster's program has been in place for more than a decade. The Lancaster Safety Coalition monitors live footage and also helps police by producing video evidence.

The program has grown to include 170 cameras throughout the city, and it very well may be the only program of its kind in the country, said Tim Miller, the coalition's executive director.

The surveillance cameras are operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Miller said. Footage is retained by the coalition for 14 days.

"Our job is to be an objective resource that makes sure we deliver a quality product that reveals exactly what happens," Miller said.

However, the ACLU argues that the surveillance system and the study supporting it wasn't valid, Domingos said.

"The Millersville study is hardly vindication of Lancaster's camera program. The researchers interviewed 20 law enforcement agents and four defense attorneys. They didn't interview a single person who actually lives and works in the neighborhoods under surveillance," Domingos said.

But even so, Miller and Muldrow both have said they understood public concern that may arise due to the idea of sweeping surveillance.

"A line always exists," Miller said. "(Police) can't touch our equipment. They can't direct our staff. They can be in here and let us know what they're looking for, but the operator's job is the operator's job and the officer's job is the officer's job."

In addition, the coalition utilizes privacy filters. For example, camera operators wouldn't be able to see through a home's second-floor window under normal circumstances.

That could change, however, in circumstances such as a hostage situation.

Muldrow noted on Monday that the department's decision on whether to adopt the surveillance program locally would be contingent on public interest. He emphasized that the idea was still in its early stages.

But multiple entities have already signified there is demand for the camera network.

For example, Better York has already raised $30,000 to support a feasibility study of the program, said Eric Menzer, chairperson of Better York.

That money comes in addition to $2,500 each from the city and the York County District Attorney's Office,.

"We believe there is a great degree of interest in this endeavor," Menzer said.

(c)2021 The York Dispatch (York, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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