July 12, 2005

Freeholders Could be Watching All of Us

One day, in the not too distant future, you may be spending some time with your family at the Phil Rizzuto Park or the Watchung Reservation and feel as though you are not alone, and you just may be right. Surveillance cameras may be digitally recording and sending live images of some of your activities to the county’s police headquarters in Westfield.

Awarded a $92,000 contract, without competitive bidding, Consolidated Construction of Colts Neck has begun the preliminary work involved with planning the installation of 100 to 150 surveillance cameras in 17 of the 30 Union County parks. The projected final cost is expected to be $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

Sebastian D’Ella, of the County Public Information Dept., maintains that the selection of Consolidated has nothing to do with the fact that they have contributed $8,100 to the UC Democratic Committee, and more than $150,000 to state Democrats since 2000. But rather was based on their work performance at the new county police headquarters.

It is worth noting that Consolidated was awarded sizable contracts in June and September 2003, contributed $2,500 a month later followed by $3000 in March 2004, $600 in June of 2004 and than was awarded a one year on an as-needed-basis contract in July of 2004. This “job performance” could be referred to as the pay as you go plan.

Intended as a tool to assist in the identification of those who vandalize county park structures and equipment, leading to prosecution and conviction, we are assured that the cameras will not intrude on our personal activities. But can we be sure?

The use of video cameras or closed-circuit television (CCTV) in public places has been an issue of “hot” debate since the mid-nineties. We have all heard of cases where those with access to the equipment have succumbed to temptation by pointing the lens into areas where they are less than welcome such as restrooms and locker rooms at public pools.

An investigation by the Detroit Fee Press showed that a database was used by Michigan law enforcement officers to help friends and themselves, stalk women and track estranged spouses.

In Washington, DC a top ranking police official used the databases to track the license plate numbers of cars parked at a gay club and than tried to blackmail the vehicles’ married owners.

In Great Britain, where cameras have been in place for years, it was found that people of color were likely to be surveilled more than one-and-a-half times that of other members of the population. Further, experts in Britain found that fully one in ten women was targeted for entirely voyeuristic reasons.

Surveillance cameras certainly have been beneficial in some cases of child abuse and abduction; however the jury is still out regarding how successful they really are overall in fighting crime in public venues and on city streets.

Use by law enforcement raises many questions such as is it constitutional to allow video surveillance of innocent activity, movement and association?

Obviously a system of checks and balances needs to be put in place when deciding who will monitor the video screens, if they should be monitored at all and who will have access to the databases.

Until then just be careful where you park your car on that beautiful spring day you decide to play hockey from work. After all, it is a small world and you never know who may be watching and who they know.