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.

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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