The eye in the sky
Big-data policing is coming for my city
On April 25, I saw a shooting incident through an impassive lens behind home plate at a youth baseball game. Though the shooting happened just a few miles from my home in North Charleston, I had the same view as millions of Americans when the video clip made the rounds on national news and social media.
In the video, provided by a parent to local news stations, we saw children in their uniforms on a ball field at night. Crackling sounds erupted from somewhere off camera. Through the microphone on a handheld device, it can be hard to tell the difference between firecrackers and gunshots. But these were gunshots.
As a parent watching the video clip, this is when a sensation beyond sight and sound kicked in. I felt dread coupled with an instinct to protect. Watching the footage for the first time, I ground my teeth as I watched some of the kids take off at a sprint, while others dropped to their bellies and crawled. Parents cried out to their children. I felt the inchoate terror of the moment, if only secondhand.
No one was injured, thank God. News reports indicate that the gunshots came from just outside the ball field, where some people got into an argument and exchanged gunfire. No arrests have been made yet.
In the aftermath, there were calls for local politicians to do something to prevent gun violence, which is a real and ongoing problem in our city. North Charleston’s mayor and top police brass went on the news almost immediately to make a public sales pitch for a long-planned program of mass surveillance and warrantless data collection, starting with an estimated $2.5 million installation expenditure in the next fiscal year.
They had the brand names all picked out: 745 Verkada surveillance cameras; 34 Rekor automatic license plate readers; a surveillance integration platform from Fusus; and an array of video walls, server racks, and furniture from Constant Technologies.
All of these data feeds and more, reportedly including facial recognition technology, privately owned Ring doorbell cameras, and ShotSpotter gunshot detectors, would be integrated into a new room inside City Hall called the “Joint Operations Center,” to be monitored 24/7 by police. The name is a militaristic rebrand of the “real-time crime centers” that have proliferated in US cities since the early 2010s.
Sales pitches for the idea tended to focus on the apparent impartiality of police surveillance.
“The cameras don’t lie,” Mayor Pro Tem Jerome Heyward told Live 5 News. “It’s a great tool, because you can’t dispute the cameras.”
“The eye in the sky, most times, does not lie,” Police Chief Reggie Burgess told News 2.
Left unsaid in the press statements was how top-down surveillance of select roadways and neighborhoods could have prevented a gunfight like the one that happened outside the ball field. What exactly is the theory of change here? How does constant data collection and selective observation reduce the volume of guns on our streets, build bonds of trust in our communities, or lower the temperature of conflicts in our neighborhoods and schools? No one has said.
This is not my field of expertise, but since no one in the local press has been asking critical questions, I’ve been doing some reading. My professor friend James Gilmore recommended I grab a copy of Sarah Brayne’s Predict and Surveil, which includes an exhaustive sociological study of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Real-Time Crime Analysis Center — a national model for projects like North Charleston’s proposed Joint Operations Center. To write the book, Brayne spent 5 years interviewing 79 police and civilian employees of the LAPD, going on ridealongs, and spending time inside a surveillance hub not unlike our proposed JOC.
Brayne summed up some of her findings:
Contrary to popular accounts, big data is not objective or less biased than discretionary “human” decision-making. More to the point: big data is fundamentally social.
Algorithms do not transcend the social, but are shaped by the social world in which they are created and used. The activities that generate and the technologies that analyze data are all embedded within social contexts and power structures, so the resulting data are anything but “natural,” detached, or purely descriptive. Rather, people situated in preexisting social, organizational, and institutional contexts decide what data to collect and analyze, about whom, and for what purpose.
This is a deeply researched rejoinder to claims from local police officials that their surveillance network would cover “every inch” of the city. That’s not a technological possibility. Instead, we must think about where the cameras will be pointed, who will be watching them, and who will have the rights to that data.
Would this data be available to criminal defendants in court cases? What access and level of control would private intermediaries and software platform managers have? Would it be available to civilians filing complaints about police misconduct? (Given the existing policies and practices around police-worn body cameras, we can anticipate a strong no on that last one.) And how will it be used or abused by our scandal-plagued mayor, who has a history of using city resources to enrich his friends at the expense of his enemies?
We’ve begun a serious debate that will culminate in North Charleston City Council taking a vote either for or against funding the Joint Operations Center this Thursday, June 9, at 7 p.m. I don’t know how it will go. I anticipate more pushback like I heard on a TV press conference from some local and regional activists today: That people who oppose mass surveillance don’t know what it’s like to live under threat of gun violence.
There was a drive-by shooting at the end of my block two years ago that rattled me and my family. Still, I am cognizant of my position of privilege here. I am a white man in a diverse city, living in a neighborhood that has experienced less state violence and personal violence than others.
But I have arrived at my conclusions after reading and hearing the witness of people who do stand in the path of that violence. I stand by the critiques leveled in this joint statement against the JOC plan, which has now been co-signed by Charleston Democratic Socialists of America (where I serve as volunteer communications secretary), the Charleston People’s Budget Coalition, the Lowcountry Action Committee, the Lowcountry Black & Latine Coalition, and the ACLU of South Carolina:
At the only public discussion City Council has had regarding the JOC proposal, council members did not ask — and police did not answer — questions about the storage and retrieval of these records, the ongoing cost of maintaining equipment and staffing the surveillance center, the role and data access of third-party software providers like Fusus and ShotSpotter, or the efficacy of mass surveillance as a deterrent to crime. Charlotte, a city cited by North Charleston Deputy Chief Ken Hagge as an example of the benefits of 24/7 police surveillance, did not see a major reduction in crime rates after implementing these technologies a decade ago (see April 21 Finance Committee packet, page 3).
Against the weak emotional arguments put forward by North Charleston police, we can show that police surveillance is detrimental to the privacy and civil liberties of Black and Latine communities (“The Disparate Impact of Surveillance,” The Century Foundation, 2017). We have known for nearly a decade that automatic license plate readers enter innocent people’s travel details into regional tracking systems (“You Are Being Tracked,” ACLU, 2013) and that cities like Charlotte already capture at least 1.5 million license plate readings per week (“Real Time Crime Center,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police promotional video, 2016). Looking at a case study in Toronto, we can see how real-time police surveillance serves to reinforce existing racial hierarchies (“How police surveillance technologies act as tools of white supremacy,” The Conversation, 2020). In New York City we can see how ramped-up police surveillance technology criminalized Black and Brown neighborhoods in the path of real estate speculation (“The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods,” The Atlantic, 2017).
Based on data from other cities that have created “real-time crime centers” (“Surveillance Compounded: Real-Time Crime Centers in the US,” Electronic Frontier Foundation), and based on the North Charleston Police Department’s own Racial Bias Audit completed in November 2021, we can predict that the creation of a 24/7 “Joint Operations Center,” overseen by North Charleston police and consuming data provided by surrounding jurisdictions, would only exacerbate underlying patterns of overpolicing, targeted harassment, racial profiling, police violence, and mass incarceration of our Black, Latine, and low-income communities.
I don’t pretend to have an all-encompassing solution to gun violence, although I would love to open up a conversation about better, more effective ways to spend $2.5 million of public funds. But if we are talking about cameras, I think it matters immensely who controls the camera and where its information goes.
When a North Charleston police officer named Michael Slager shot a man named Walter Scott in the back after a traffic stop in April 2015, Slager lied about what happened until a bystander named Feidin Santana came forward with cell phone footage that showed Slager shooting Scott in the back as he tried to run away.
In the wake of that incident, prominent activists including some progressives and Democrats demanded a state law that would require body-worn cameras for all law enforcement officers. That year, after years of struggle, they finally got that mandate passed into state law.
But the devil is in the details. As I reported for Al Jazeera America at the time, the new law specifically exempted that video footage from the public record. So an expensive technology that was pitched as a tool for accountability was rendered toothless — or worse — by policy.
“That’s a cop cover-up bill,” First Amendment lawyer Jay Bender told me. “It’s to protect cops from the public finding out about their misconduct.”
It matters who holds the camera, and it matters where they point it. There is no eye in the sky, only a human scaffolding of surveillance, discipline, and punishment.
Please sign this petition against the Joint Operations Center. If you are local and would like to speak at Thursday night’s City Council meeting, you can sign up to speak with the city clerk here (deadline is noon Thursday).