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DNC: 1 Year Later: Big Brother's watching

Should we care?


  • Jeff Hahne

City Councilwoman Claire Fallon remembers the aftermath of 9/11: the heartbreaking flowers outside an empty fire station near her son's Manhattan apartment, the white tents still erect a year later, the cousin she lost. That day, everything changed.

"It's never going back to the way it was," she says. "We were such an innocent country."

Sept. 11 hardened America while making us more forgiving of harsh, often ineffective surveillance tactics. Fallon, a member of the council's community safety committee, says she feels conflicted about a post-9/11 need for more "security" and the erosion of privacy and civil liberties.

In the wake of the Democratic National Convention, others in the Queen City are also concerned about the extent of localized surveillance.

It's been a year since President Barack Obama and his supporters came to the city's core, but before the Democratic Party could formally nominate him for a second term, a massive security and surveillance apparatus built for a president needed assembling. Prior to the convention, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police didn't have many surveillance cameras or license plate readers, tiny cameras mounted on stoplights. While the department could access footage from cameras in major intersections, mostly operated by the city's transportation department, police didn't have their own video equipment. Thanks to federal funding for the convention, CMPD purchased 98 cameras and installed them downtown, Capt. Allan Rutledge Jr. says. The department also added 95 license plate readers to the five that were already in Charlotte, according to a department report.

In fact, surveillance equipment was the focus of the $22 million the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department spent on security equipment, most of which remained after the convention. That figure encompasses the cost of stationary and mobile cameras and installation.

Earlier this summer, CNA Analysis & Solutions, a nonprofit institute that analyzes the public sector, released a report funded by the Department of Justice about CMPD's convention security, naming extensive surveillance as paramount to its "success" with handling the DNC.

"Video surveillance was a key mechanism for CMPD's intelligence gathering efforts," the report says. "The CMPD ... actively monitored over 600 wireless and wired surveillance cameras mounted throughout the city. In addition, CMPD had four newly implemented high-definition cameras ... for officers to use to gather information on the ground."

Cameras allowed police to zoom in on suspicious packages and people, the report says. The live video feeds and undercover "intelligence sources" — which could refer to undercover officers or informants — texting and calling from inside protest groups enhanced the department's other surveillance operations, including police monitoring of background check databases and social media. But the license plate readers were deemed not "significant assets for event security."

Since the DNC, CMPD formed a real-time crime center unit to take advantage of the new equipment for solving more everyday crimes. By moving existing resources, police established the unit and staffed it with nine full-time detectives and a sergeant, all overseen by Rutledge.

Data recorded on the surveillance cameras is kept for 10 days, while license plate readers' data is stored for six months, in part because it takes up less space, Rutledge says. Now, when a crime is committed, police can immediately look through data to locate suspects and relevant information.

As proof of the technology's effectiveness, Rutledge offered a recent example in which cameras allowed police to track and arrest robbery suspects fleeing on bicycles. But the department hasn't compiled information that shows just how effective the added surveillance equipment has been overall.

"As far as any real hard data, we can't sit there and quote numbers for you," Rutledge says. But incidences similar to the recent robbery occur on a weekly basis. "That's a success that sticks in my mind, off the top of my head."

If he had to guess, the unit assists with about 60 to 70 crimes a week using the cameras, plate readers and related surveillance technology, Rutledge says. "The more eyes we can have, the more beneficial we can be in the community when it comes to fighting crime."

The department would like to work with businesses and other government departments, including CATS, to expand the number of cameras it has access to, he says, emphasizing that the department is primarily interested in partnering with larger private businesses like malls and not small companies' security cameras.

"I don't think we're talking about every convenience store," Rutledge says.

CMPD has begun relocating 40 to 45 of the cameras from the oversaturated downtown area — where the 98 cameras have been since the convention — to other parts of the city. Rutledge didn't know how many the department has moved already and could only say that they would be used in high-crime areas and to inspect specific crimes.

Moving the cameras concerns some residents who fear that the technology will disproportionately target certain neighborhoods. They question what they say is a lack of transparency about the entire process.

"The DNC is over"

Civil liberties advocates say Charlotte is among the cities that generally don't overuse or abuse surveillance equipment. We aren't Chicago, and we certainly aren't London, where cameras peer down at you from practically every street corner. But as we become more dependent on surveillance — and citizens more tolerant of it — the same civil liberties advocates argue we will only keep adding oft-unnecessary equipment.

"There have been no evidence-based studies that say the more cameras you have, the less likely you are to be subject to a terrorist attack," says Charlotte lawyer James E. Ferguson II, who was named by the National Law Journal as one of the nation's Top Ten litigators. "Under that logic, you can invade the privacy of citizens anywhere under the pretext that there could be a threat. Nobody can articulate a real reason for increased surveillance. It just seems like a 'good idea.'"

Despite repeated reassurances from the police department that the cameras would only face downtown, Tampa, Fla.'s, City Council passed an ordinance in December that banned cameras purchased for the 2012 Republican National Convention from looking into homes. The city also outlined how many cameras were purchased and, more importantly, where they were located.

Before Charlotte starts moving its cameras away from Uptown, Ferguson says there needs to be full disclosure about where they will be placed and why.

"The [DNC] is over," Ferguson says. "There was no need for the cameras before the convention, so presumably there is no need for the cameras after the convention. They should not be utilized just because you have them. If there isn't a need for them, they shouldn't be placed."

Dick Hester, president of Charlotte's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has similar worries.

"One of the things that concerns us about police surveillance is whether it's being tailored for a certain part of the city," Hester says. "We think that it would be a serious civil rights problem if there were focuses of the surveillance systems in some places and it wasn't a uniform system. In other words, is the surveillance system targeted?"

Rutledge says the department is only selecting areas based on crime. "We're not targeting any type of demographic," he says. "We're utilizing crime statistics to determine, or help us determine, the best use of these resources. We're not putting cameras in your interior neighborhoods unless it is specifically dealing with a very specific, ongoing investigation at the time, and those are the type of cameras that are moveable and removable."

Rutledge emphasizes that most of the surveillance cameras are placed at major thoroughfares by the transportation department, not police, though they can still be accessed by CMPD.

Hester and North Carolina ACLU policy director Sarah Preston say their organization is also uneasy about how long the police department stores information gathered by license plate readers and cameras.

"I know the ACLU has some concerns about the storage of that data and we're trying to be sensitive to that," Rutledge says. "What's important to realize is that queries of that data are really all incident-driven. We don't just start looking at tags to figure out who's driving where."

At its statewide annual meeting in Charlotte this spring, the ACLU hosted a panel about surveillance that included Preston, the police attorney and others. Rutledge went, too.

"We attended ACLU meetings and tried to be very, very upfront and transparent with what our policies are with retention of this data," Rutledge says. "We want to include folks when we're trying to make policy to make sure they're the best they can be to meet our investigative needs while being sensitive to the community."

Preston says that while Charlotte may be better on privacy than some cities — CMPD obtains warrants before requesting information from phone companies while some other police departments don't, for example — our trajectory is troubling.

"Once that technology is deployed, it's very hard to roll it back again," she says, adding that Charlotte police already possess most of the surveillance technology she is aware of. "Our feeling is that in order for there to be effective oversight of the government, the people have to know what the government is up to. There are a lot of things that law-abiding people in this country do that they don't want the government to know about."

Despite the department's participation in the ACLU event, there are still lingering concerns. Activist Michael Zytkow, who is on the Charlotte ACLU's board, is waiting for the results of a public information request about all forms of police surveillance of activists taken here since 2011. He is concerned the department isn't being transparent about some equipment.

Toward the end of October, the Charlotte ACLU will establish a team that will come up with ideas to address expanded surveillance since the Democratic National Convention.

Despite her reservations of surveillance equipment, Councilwoman Fallon sees few other options to maintain a high level of security.

"It bothers me to give away more and more of our independence, but there's nothing we can do about it," she says.