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Are surveillance cameras the solution?


I was walking along a public sidewalk the other day when a woman’s voice came from a nearby house informing me that I was being recorded. So, I belted out a medley of Broadway show tunes.

There was once a time when constant surveillance conjured Orweilian images of Big Brother. Now, it’s just a routine part of life.

And so, I don’t expect there to be much objection to the recent announcement by Las Cruces Police Chief Miguel Dominguez that the city plans to purchase more “eye in the sky” cameras in response to an increasing crime problem downtown.

They are planned as part of a crime-reduction strategy that also may include the use of private security guards to supplement police. Mayor Ken Miyagishima said he would like to see security guards posted downtown throughout the night. Dominguez said that would help to free up his officers.

The portable cameras will likely be just the first step toward permanent cameras being installed in high-crime areas.

Private surveillance cameras are already in place just about everywhere we go, making the concept of public surveillance seem much more tolerable now than it had been in the past. According to a 2021 story by the Internet site tomorrow.city, there are more than 1 billion closed-circuit television systems in use by governments worldwide, with the most in China and India.

We saw how those systems can be abused during the recent Covid-19 crackdown in China. Anywhere people are engaged in protest, surveillance cameras can be used by the state to identify leaders and stifle free speech.

In a 2002 release, the American Civil Liberties Union argues public cameras have not proven to be effective in reducing crime and have been abused by police. An investigation by the Detroit Free Press found officers used the database to stalk women, threaten drivers after road rage incidents and track estranged spouses.

“The growing presence of public cameras will bring subtle but profound changes to the character of our public spaces,” the ACLU states. “When citizens are being watched by authorities - or aware they might be watched at any time - they are more self-conscious and less free-wheeling.”

I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, especially when the bars are closing.

The concept of privacy has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Everybody walks around with a video camera in their pocket now, and every large, public event is filmed from a thousand different angles. Like it or not, it’s absolutely inescapable.

But I hope there will be a robust debate in Las Cruces before we give up all notion of privacy and surrender completely to the surveillance state.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.