Black Friday

Divert money for surveillance to foster better community policing

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

December 8, 2014

Actions by police in the US over the past few months have put their practices in the spotlight. But what has largely been ignored in the narrative is the connection between privacy abuses by police departments who receive large consignments of used military equipment, much used in anti-privacy surveillance plus government subsidies.

At the same time, these departments are employing expensive, state-of-the-art listening devices, they decry the fact that their budgets don’t permit spending on equipment which might check abusive behavior by police officers and save lives.

Three recent killings by police officers in Ferguson, MO and Cleveland, OH and New York City might have been prevented if the officers involved had used alternative methods of force. If the policemen were outfitted with Tasers (electric stun guns which immobilize a suspect) or pepper spray devices, the young men who died might still be alive today.

Instead, at ranges of less than 12 feet, officers employed deadly force and shot the suspects with a pistol. Two were unarmed- the other brandished a realistic looking but toy gun. Two were shot at close range. In the NYC incident a chokehold was employed to subdue a suspect resulting in his death.

It is not the intent here to join the chorus castigating police for their response, nor become involved in a racial debate, as others have gleefully engaged. What should be contrasted is the almost limitless source of resources available to police-regardless of its source- to trample privacy rights of suspects by resorting to furtive tactics to infiltrate communication devices and emails.

Over the past few months I wrote about the police use and abuse regarding Stingray devices. These are mobile cell towers attached to motor vehicles which can permeate walls of houses and buildings to glean information from cell phones.I also have written about government agencies resorting to private airplanes monitoring cell phone activity from suspects aboard airliners but, in the process, obtaining information from thousands of other phones of innocent, unaware citizens.

It has been reported that these tactics are employed without the full knowledge of the judiciary as to how warrants to use these methods are employed, but it is also not the purpose of this piece to opine on the merits of such law enforcement practices. What does come to mind, however, and bears scrutiny, is the large expenditure needed to employ such capabilities versus the amount of useful, actionable data actually obtained. Contrast this with the loss of life which is occurring at the hands of police because they are not outfitted with alternatives to deadly force in their arsenal.

Naturally, politicians and activists have gotten into the act with their various calls for accountability. One of President Obama’s recommendations is for all policemen to wear body cameras. This suggests that police tactics need to be monitored to see if they are in compliance with accepted practices for making an arrest. It also implies that if police know their response is being filmed, they are less likely to resort to brutality. This is the wrong way to go about solving the problem.

It is not necessary to get trapped into the old debate on how minorities commit the most crimes and how difficult it is for police to make snap, life and death decisions. This is indisputable. But rather we should be discussing expending more resources for less lethal weapons. In the three cases highlighted above, each would have had a less deadly result if the suspect was stunned or otherwise rendered incapacitated either by electric or chemical means. In each case the distances involved were within the parameters required for use of these alternative devices.

Law enforcement tells us there is no money to train and equip its members with alternatives to deadly force, yet there seems to be a limitless availability of anti-privacy, bulk surveillance devices to be employed and a limitless appetite to use them. I recommend the end to covert spying and the diversion of the funds for such operations be diverted to improving the everyday policing efforts of the law enforcement community.

The right to life and the right to communicate freely go hand in hand and are constitutional guarantees as well as fundamental to personal privacy. Channeling money away from intrusive privacy practices into basic policing improvements will benefit all.

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