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Who Pays for Police Surveillance?

Most of the concerns voiced over surveillance cameras revolve around how police gain access to private networks or use the footage they acquire, but some critics have begun to call attention to how police surveillance is funded and question whether the growth of surveillance is driven by the flow of money or public safety.

Police pay for surveillance equipment in a variety of ways, but surprisingly, it is rare for cash-strapped municipalities to fund the purchase of equipment through normal budgeting procedures, both because there is rarely enough money in the budget to buy expensive equipment and because the budgeting process is public and necessarily transparent.

As a result, most surveillance equipment is purchased through other means.

Civil asset forfeitures allow police to seize money and property from people suspected of being involved in a crime before they are even charged, and because local police get a share of the money seized in operations when they partner with federal agencies, this revenue stream has provided a reliable source of funds for many police departments to buy expensive technology like automated license-plate readers.

Private donations and grants from foundations also contribute directly to police purchases of surveillance equipment. Retail giant Target paid for the new surveillance center built by the Los Angeles Police Department in 2007, and Atlanta millionaire Charlie Loudermilk gave the city money to create a video integration center where police monitor live feeds from public and private cameras.

The federal government offers grants to local police for the purchase of surveillance equipment. These grants can be used for anything from bodycams to mobile surveillance units and camera equipped drones. The Department of Homeland Security also pays police departments in border areas to integrate their networks into the federal system to enhance border security.

Of more concern to observers are the close relationships between police and the companies that market surveillance equipment. After Microsoft developed a surveillance system for New York, the city receives a share of the revenue from any further sales to other cities, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports. This relationship calls into question the validity of New York’s claims that the system contributes to public safety.

Perhaps more troubling is how easily police gain access to private camera networks, often without a warrant. Arrangements with users allow police access to Ring doorbell cameras, most license-plate readers, and the networks installed in many business improvement districts.

The flow of money back and forth between police and private companies is troubling in itself, but what is most disconcerting is the claim by some critics that it is this money, not concerns about public safety, that leads police to sow fear in their communities and convince the public that more surveillance is needed. 

 

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