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Surveillance and the City

Operation Legend was a U.S. Department of Justice program aimed at reducing violent crime rates in select cities – in theory, at least. In practice, it was seldom more than a means of targeting activist groups unpopular with the “law and order” regime and funneling hundreds of millions into the prison industrial complex.

The program was initiated with a surge of federal police sent into the target cities. Most agents would leave after a few months of training local cops in advanced surveillance technology, but the tech itself – and the federal grants paying for it – remained to bolster the capabilities of local law enforcement. 

According to The Intercept, much of the federally funded technology comes from two sources: Cellebrite, a company based in Israel that produces phone data extraction products, and Shotspotter, which manufactures gunshot detection equipment.

Cellebrite inked contracts with Memphis and Detroit in August 2020, the cost of which doubled the previous budget for such technology in the first city and more than tripled it in the second.

Both cities were targeted by Operation Legend and received federal grant money to pay for the new tech. The program had already furnished cops in Idaho, Maryland, Florida, and Kansas with Cellebrite products.

Shotspotter has perhaps reaped even more financial gains from the federal grants. Five of the Operation Legend cities agreed to install or increase their gunshot detection tech in 2020. This came despite a study released that year showing that the company’s system failed to affect violent crime rates in St. Louis; moreover, it disproportionately raised the presence of police in minority areas.

“This is yet another surveillance technology that has the potential to victimize people based on their proximity to crime and overpolicing,” remarked Matthew Guariglia, an Electronic Frontier Foundation analyst. “If you live in a neighborhood that has a gun violence problem, not only are you subjected to that, you are also subjected to the surveillance regime that comes along with it.”

When asked why St. Louis was slated for grants to fund more of a system that does not work, Guariglia said, “Shotspotter spends a lot of money.”

Records show the company dished out close to $2 million to lobby Congress, yet this seems a small investment to assure a slice of the $750 million pie that the Justice Department grants serve up for such programs each year. It is a price tag that might not seem so steep had it actually been used to make cities safer rather than to push a political agenda. 


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