Big Brother's Corporate Sponsor

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

On March 29, grainy video was aired on America's Most Wanted featuring three women from Arizona using a Washington, D.C.-area ATM near the scene of a vicious murder. The times recorded by the surveillance camera and the ATM indicated the women (a 46-year-old mother, her 16-year-old daughter, and a teenage friend) could have been the ones who used the victim's cash card. A few weeks later, authorities arrested the women and threw them in a Maryland jail for three weeks. Turns out the time recorded by the camera was three minutes off and the women had nothing to do with the murder.

A D.C.-based watchdog group founded in 1994, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), has called for strict guidelines for installing police cameras and handling surveillance videotape. Cédric Laurant, policy counsel at EPIC, says that in Minneapolis, if the police and public and store owners agree nuisance crimes are a real problem, then installing cameras is okay and could help deter crime. But that's just the first step.

Other important questions, according to Laurant, are: "How will these images be used? How will they be retained? Will they be transferred to other law enforcement agencies? Will they be shared with the media? Will people have access to these images if they want to contest what's on a specific tape?"

Inspector Allen is quick to argue that surveillance footage will not be abused in Minneapolis. "We've put a policy into effect that the tapes can be used only for detection and prevention of crime, and the legitimate investigations of a crime," he says. "Any tape used in an investigation will be handled like any other evidence--there's a record for everything." At most, he says, useless videotape will be kept around for a month before being destroyed or taped over. A full set of police security camera guidelines, however, "are still a work in progress," the inspector says.

Unlike Allen, officials from Target aren't talking. In a press statement released by spokeswoman Lena Klofstad, the company says the gift to the police is "to help enhance the safety and vibrancy of downtown Minneapolis for those who live, work, and visit here" and is part of the company's "longstanding commitment to giving back to the communities in which we do business." When approached for more information, Klofstad had no further comment.

Cut through the "public service" spin, and what you get is this simple reality: Target has enlisted the MPD to act as corporate security guards, who can ensure that their slice of downtown is an attractive place to work and shop--a continuation of the large-scale redevelopment and gentrification of Block E. The problem is, security cameras (like gentrification) are a classic shell game--moving nuisance crimes (or bothersome poor people) from here to there. In three years Target and the MPD will no doubt be able to claim that nuisance crimes around Nicollet Mall have been reduced. The more important question, however, will be whether overall crime has been reduced--and at what cost. And at that point, one can only hope that those interested in safety and privacy rights, including members of the City Council, will take a cue from Washington, D.C. council member Adrian Fenty.

In November, the D.C. council approved the use of police-controlled public surveillance cameras. In a Washington Post story published the next day, Fenty explained why he voted against the proposal, which has much stricter and more specific guidelines than the arrangement between Target and the MPD:

"At first, I thought Washington, because it's prone to more terrorist attacks, would be a place where visitors would want cameras. But I agree now with my colleagues who say Washington should be a beacon of freedom."

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