In Praise of Surveillance Cameras

Carlesha Freeland-Gaither is safe. Does that justify the constant observation?

surveillance cameras

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So: Thank God for our dystopian Orwellian future, eh?

I kid — kind of. But we’re all glad that Carlesha Freeland-Gaither is alive and well and restored to her family today, aren’t we? So maybe we should talk about one of the reasons that’s the case.

That reason? Cameras, cameras everywhere.

A video camera captured the first frightening images of Freeland-Gaither being captured. A surveillance camera got the first halfway clear picture of her alleged abductor. Another provided somewhat fuzzier shots of him.

At Wednesday’s press conference announcing Freeland-Gaither’s safe recovery, Commissioner Charles Ramsey went out of his way to thank the media for its efforts keeping the crime front-and-center in the public’s attention. Several other investigators did the same. And it’s true: Just about every local media outlet eagerly pushed each new image to its audience. For a couple of days, we achieved almost total saturation.

Without images? Maybe we’re telling a different story today. Certainly there are any number of horrific Philadelphia crimes that go nearly uncovered by the media. Freeland-Gaither’s story was scary enough to begin with, but the pictures put it over the top.

And the pictures didn’t just keep the crime in the public mind; they helped solve the case. They certainly helped investigators make the link to Virginia, where suspect Delvin Barnes was already wanted on charges involving violence. They helped investigators identify his car, and know that it was damaged by Freeland-Gaither’s struggle to resist.

There were other factors, of course — the GPS unit attached to the suspect’s car, for one. But cameras made a huge difference.

Civil libertarians are generally creeped out by the proliferation of surveillance cameras in our cities and in our society. There’s something kind of authoritarian and Big Brotherish about a world in which it is possible to have your every public move recorded in grainy black and white.

The key to that last sentence, though, is the word “public.” Simply put, we have no expectation of privacy when we leave the house and venture out into the wide, wide world: We can see people, people can see us. And that makes the civil liberties objection to public surveillance just a little less resonant.

The truth is, we don’t know if it was a city-owned or privately owned surveillance camera that captured the first images of Freeland-Gaither being kidnapped: A police spokesperson on Thursday said the department would not answer that question.

What we do know: There are roughly 800 privately owned surveillance cameras registered with the city’s SafeCam network. And the network, actually, appears to be one of those cases of Philadelphia doing something right.

The SafeCam project offers business owners a rebate on the money they spend installing surveillance cameras, if those owners register the cameras with police. Police almost never look at footage from those cameras — unless a crime is committed within range of one. Then they go to the owner and recover the data, looking for evidence.

So Big Brother has been somewhat privatized in Philadelphia, and that’s a good thing: It keeps the actual surveillance footage out of the hands of authorities unless something very bad has happened. Otherwise, they don’t care that much if you’re (say) picking your nose in public. It’s a way of protecting citizens without watching them too closely. That’s a good balance, right?

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson thinks so. He’s been pushing the expanded use of private surveillance cameras in Philadelphia for much of the last year. “I have been working to promote the use of surveillance cameras throughout our city for exactly this reason – it helps solve crimes and keep our streets safe,”  Johnson said Thursday through a spokesman.

And he’s nearly ready to expand the SafeCam network even further, to make homeowners and private property owners — not just businesses — eligible for the rebate.

“I am exploring legislation that would expand the Commerce Department’s SafeCam grant program to residential properties,” he said through the spokesman. “The plan currently offers up to 50 percent reimbursement to commercially owned properties. Inducing residents to install surveillance cameras may deter crime in our communities and give police a valuable crime-solving tool.”

Assuming the city can absorb the expense, it seems like a good idea. None of us wants to be watched all the time. But we do want people to notice if something bad happens to us.  In Carlesha Freeland-Gaither’s case, at least, the system worked. Maybe the dystopian future isn’t so bad.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.