A song released in 1984 repeated the chorus “I always feel like – somebody’s watching me ... And I have no privacy.” Coincidentally, the dystopian science fiction novel “1984,” written by George Orwell and published in 1949, is the quintessential cautionary tale of a society oppressed and controlled through the use of mass surveillance.
In the past few decades that futuristic-vision of mass surveillance has come to pass. And with the use of technology like facial recognition, it has been used to intimidate, detain and arrest protesters and dissenters in totalitarian countries.
There were an estimated 1 billion-plus surveillance cameras installed worldwide by 2021, according to IHS Markit, with 54% located in China. The number of public and private cameras in the U.S. is estimated to be somewhere in the range of 40 to 50 million-plus, according to IHS and Comparitech. Atlanta is purported to be the most surveilled city in the U.S., while Chicago has the highest number of cameras of any city, with an estimated 32,000.
Beverly Hills, California, has more than 2,000 cameras for its population of 32,500, which if ranked per capita as a separate entity from Los Angeles, is the second-most surveilled city in the world, according to The Los Angeles Times.
The Durango Police Department has access to a system of 117 cameras around town. The vast majority are mounted in public places like parking garages, parks and public buildings, but some are in more “sensitive” areas that are not divulged to the public, according to the DPD.
To be clear, those 117 security cameras are not monitored in real-time by the police department. But if a crime occurs and is captured by one of those cameras, the police will review the video to help solve whatever crime has occurred.
“We’re not utilizing cameras to catch people doing things,” said Cmdr. Casey Malone of the DPD. “There has to be a reason for us to go to a camera to view something. And that needs to be a dispatched call, or a crime reported. So at the rec center, if a bike gets stolen, we are going to go back and review that footage to see if we can figure out who the person stealing it is. But we are not live-viewing with them. That’s not what we do.”
The DPD did, however, add a fourth video surveillance camera on Main Avenue in December, completing its planned four-camera installation along the busy downtown corridor. Those four cameras can and will, in certain instances, be monitored in real-time by police.
The fourth camera was attached to the traffic-light post at 11th Street and Main Avenue and looks north, joining an already existing camera at that location that looks south.
The other two cameras are located at College Drive and Main Avenue and at Ninth Street and Main Avenue. The high-quality cameras cost between $6,500 and $7,000 plus installation. The cameras have infrared and “analytics capabilities,” which is object recognition.
“The reason that we picked those cameras is that they are very similar to the ones used in the Boston Marathon bombing,” said Cmdr. Ray Shupe with the DPD. “They were basically able to identify those suspects from that bombing based on a backpack that was left behind and they backtracked the backpack and were able to identify some suspects pretty quickly.”
The cameras are not used for issuing citations to people who run red lights, police said, and they don’t have facial recognition capabilities. During special events they will be monitored live, but at other times they will be checked only when a crime has occurred. Video is kept for 11 days before it overwrites itself.
“We use them a lot for lost children, lost parents,” Shupe said. “When we have parents or kids separated during special events, we can do a lot of stuff with them where we try and backtrack and figure out where the parents might have gone.”
Though the cameras appear to be aimed at the street and focused solely on traffic, they have a wide view that encompasses sidewalks and storefronts. They can zoom in to focus on specific areas and assist in identifying shoplifters.
A police special investigation unit witnessed a drug deal involving fentanyl pills last year that involved a foot chase, Shupe said. The cameras captured the suspect putting the pills into a trash can and identified the suspect.
“These cameras are a force multiplier with us because we can’t put a cop on every corner but this technology can certainly help us solve crimes and criminal activity,” Shupe said.
After an incident or car crash occurs within eye of a camera, police review video as an investigative tool to see if somebody ran a red light or perhaps a pedestrian was crossing against the light, or to identify the people involved.
The cameras can also make a real difference in “de-escalating” a situation by letting an officer know what is happening before they arrive on scene, said Deputy Police Chief Brice Current.
“A big problem with police officers arriving on scenes is they don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “This allows them to know who the right people are to speak with, for example. And it helps them to figure out who didn’t do the crime.”
And dispatch is often informed of events by a third party, so it can become like a game of telephone where an officer may have been told there’s a dangerous weapon and when there’s not, or told there is no weapon threat only to arrive and discover there is, Current said.
Another way that cameras can help to curtail danger to the public and first responders is in a traffic crash, Malone said.
“As the program to use cameras expands, it will help with one of the most dangerous things that police officers do, which is drive cars – especially at high speeds,” he said.
He uses the hypothetical of a car crash in front of Walmart that may result in two police cars, a firetruck and an ambulance running lights and sirens as they travel through Durango at a high rate of speed to reach the scene.
“Imagine the liability of any one of those being involved in a crash and people getting hurt,” Malone said. “So if we have the ability with cameras to go live on that scene, and see that the people involved in the crash are outside walking around, well now we can downgrade those police officers to shut their lights and sirens off, to slow down, and to drive more safely to the scene. And that makes everybody in the community safer.”
There is no doubt that video-camera technology increases the ability of police to monitor the public, as well as fine-tune investigations to solve crimes, but with an estimated 62% of Americans owning private security cameras, according to IHS Markit, along with publicly owned cameras placed in high-use and high-crime areas, as well as private businesses with cameras, it’s safe to assume that anytime someone is in public – they are also being caught on camera.
Tom Williamson, a former public defender and defense attorney, offered a counterpoint to the model of police staying within the lines by using video surveillance solely for the purpose of public and emergency services safety.
In 2002, the ACLU disclosed documents that showed the Denver Police Department had been monitoring and recording peaceful protest activities of Denver-area residents and keeping files on “expressive” activities of law-abiding organizations, while falsely labeling many of them as “criminal extremists,” according to ACLU documents referred to as the “spy files controversy.”
The Denver mayor at the time acknowledged that the Denver Police Department’s intelligence bureau had compiled computerized files of 208 organizations and approximately 300 individuals, and said that “at least some” of the files should not have been compiled.
That particular example of malfeasance aside, Williamson said cameras “certainly can be” used to help defendants accused of crimes.
“You’ve got to remember we’re also in the age of (police) body cameras and that captures video and audio,” he said. “So there is what happened and not what the police officers said happened. So that can be very helpful. But obviously if it documents your client doing criminal activity or confessing to criminal activity, that doesn’t help the defendant’s case. So, it’s a two-sided sword.”
Malone reiterated that the cameras the DPD installed on Main Avenue do not have facial recognition capabilities, nor do any of the other 117 lesser cameras that police can access around town.
“It’s not what we do,” Malone said. “I would hate for the public to think that’s what we do or are attempting to do. It’s not. We don’t have that ability and we have no desire to have it.”
He also shares concerns about loss of privacy and said it is important to guard against it as well as any police overreach.
“I’m the guy that is probably less trusting of government than some others,” he said. “My privacy matters to me as much as it does to most people. So as this (technology) develops, and I’ve done it in previous agencies where I’ve worked, we have to establish clear, direct policies that prevent manipulation of cameras unless there is a reason to manipulate that camera.”
The DPD is also working to leverage public-private partnerships with cameras in neighborhoods and businesses where they would be given, by consent of the camera owners, remote access to view video, both live when police have been dispatched, and after a crime has occurred.
“It will allow us to cast a wider net that will help us to solve crimes faster,” Shupe said.
An earlier version of this story included a photo caption that incorrectly identified a person installing a police camera as a city employee. The person is a contract employee with Digicom.