Big Brother's Corporate Sponsor

The Minneapolis police team up with Target to keep an electronic eye on the corporation's corner

In Minneapolis, Big Brother is walking around with a bull's-eye on his chest.

On June 6, the City Council approved a gift from Target Corp. to the Minneapolis Police Department for as many security surveillance cameras (and related technology) deemed necessary to keep watch over what the retail giant calls the "Safe Zone." This 10-block area runs north and south along First Avenue, Hennepin Avenue, and Nicollet Mall, between 12th Street and Washington Avenue; it includes Target Center, Target's corporate headquarters, and the company's Marshall Field's department store.

The financially stretched MPD accepted the gift, which will include at least 30 cameras and is worth approximately $250,000. Inspector Rob Allen, who is serving as the MPD's point person on the project, says the goal is to curb nuisance crimes in the area, such as pickpocketing, drug peddling, public drunkenness, and panhandling. The all-weather security cameras will be posted on strategically chosen street corners (most likely atop streetlights) and the images will be broadcast at downtown's First Precinct. It's unclear whether all cameras will be recording around the clock or how station-house monitors will be staffed (although the MPD is hoping to utilize law enforcement volunteers). Whatever the case, Allen says the arrangement will result in a more efficient use of police resources. "It takes an officer 30 minutes to patrol the length of Nicollet Mall. With these cameras, we can do it in three minutes." Both sides will review the effectiveness of the arrangement in three years.

If that review were done today--and if anecdotal evidence from other communities where similar schemes have been implemented is any indication--it would not be clear whether cameras reduce crime; what's more, this sort of technology has already led to a level of privacy invasion that would have George Orwell spinning in his grave.

As George Radwanski, privacy commissioner of Canada, wrote in late 2001, when ordering police in a small British Columbia town to stop using video surveillance on public streets: "The level and quality of privacy in our country risks being struck a crippling, irrevocable blow if we allow ourselves to become subjected to constant, unrelenting surveillance and observation through the lens of proliferating video cameras controlled by the police or any other agents of the state."

In Minneapolis, there are already hundreds of surveillance systems snapping pictures of us all the time. There are cameras in every downtown skyway, ATM cameras, cameras above entrances to businesses and office buildings, and electronic traffic spies scattered across the metro. There is no available data to gauge how many times Twin Cities citizens are marked by an electronic eye as they go about their daily business. Last October, though, ABC News estimated that the average urban American is photographed up to 200 times a day.

Law enforcement makes use of this technology worldwide, as do police in at least 20 U.S. cities, including New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Los Angeles. The theory is that the mere presence of such technology can cause a decrease in nuisance crimes. The best available evidence, however, suggests this supposition is as fanciful as it is flawed.

Last August, the Home Office in England (that country's Justice Department) released a study examining the results of 22 smaller studies that evaluated how effective police cameras were in preventing crime in the UK and the U.S. The data show that cameras incrementally reduce transgressions in target areas (especially in parking lots), but that overall crime rates remain static. Dealers, thieves, and loiterers simply find new spots to ply their trade.

Over the past decade, as a response to IRA bombings in and around London, more than 300,000 police surveillance cameras have been installed in public spaces all over England, at an annual cost of $18 million. So far, not a single terrorist has been arrested.

Over the past few months, Inspector Allen has made several presentations to downtown business owners and residents to gain support for the MPD-Target initiative. During those talks he often refers to Wilmington, Delaware, where a city council member collected enough money to buy a dozen surveillance cameras and install them on the worst drug corners in the city, which happened to be in his ward.

Wilmington Police Sgt. William Wells claims the cameras have been a great help, because they not only record drug sales but also pinpoint where a dealer is stashing his product. He acknowledges, however, that when the cameras reduce drug sales in one area, the supply chain simply moves. "When they figure out a camera is around, they'll move up a block or two. We've even had a camera shot out."

Downtown Minneapolis community activist Terrell Brown says that when he heard Inspector Allen's pitch, he couldn't help but worry about who's going to watch the tapes and how they're going to be handled. "I wonder what else (the cameras) might be used for," he says. "Maybe they're going to count customers for Target. Maybe they want to make a list of people going into the gay bars or strip clubs."

Precedent suggests Brown has reason to be concerned. In 1997, a Washington, D.C. police lieutenant was charged with a number of crimes, including blackmailing married men he observed patronizing gay bars on his beat. Privacy activists shudder at how a camera could be used in similarly abusive situations.

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