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The Number of Surveillance-Based Officer-Citizen Encounters Is Increasing

by Jordan Arizmendi

Eyes in the skies are watching us. We are safe behind our bedroom doors. But when we are out in public, thanks to the latest in invasive police surveillance technology, there is always the possibility (even probability) that someone is watching us. According to cybersecurity research company Comparitech, the average U.S. city uses six cameras for every 1,000 citizens. Whether it be that Ring doorbell you may have installed last Christmas or that tiny secret camera hidden on the top of the skyscraper across the street, if you are out in public, law enforcement is likely watching your every move.

Most people’s assumption of such invasions of privacy will be muted. After all, if we are doing nothing illegal, why should we care if law enforcement is always watching us? However, under our current laws, it requires nothing more than law enforcement’s reasonable suspicion of criminal activity – a very low standard – to be stopped and frisked on the streets.

For example, 25-year-old Michael Celestine was walking down a New Orleans street one day. Little did he know that he was being monitored by New Orleans police at the city’s Real Time Crime Center. At the time, the police used Celestine’s jacket as an excuse to stop and frisk him. They claimed a “bulge” in his jacket could have been a gun – notice how easy and subjective it is to meet the reasonable suspicion standard, meaning virtually anyone can be stopped and frisked for anything or nothing at all since, like seeing various objects in the clouds, a bulge in one’s clothing that could be a weapon is in the eye of the beholder.

When two NOPD squad cars approached Celestine, he ran, resulting in Celestine being shot with a stun gun. After spending a year in jail, all charges against Celestine were dropped, and he was awarded a $10,000 settlement.

At first, New Orleans welcomed the city’s camera network. Back in 2017, city officials convinced the public that the cameras would be used to gather evidence after a crime occurs.  But as police look to fill their jail and prison beds, the NOPD use their cameras for highly questionable situations exactly like Celestines’ to justify stops and searches.

A Terry Stop, from the landmark 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), makes it legal for a police officer to stop someone only on the basis of “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. Some argue that, essentially, nothing has really changed with the proliferation of surveillance cameras. Police officers looking to meet their arrest quotas can stop and frisk someone, regardless of whether the suspect is seen on camera or walking down the street next to them.

However, cameras provide a litany of advantages to law enforcement over personal observation by cops, while burdening the public with a laundry list of disadvantages. For starters, the eyes in the sky are watching 24 hours a day and have impeccable vision and memory. In addition, new software allows law enforcement to read the lips of an encounter taking place across the city.

“Every time the police department or other city officials want to introduce more cameras … officials always insist that we shouldn’t be concerned about civil liberties risks because NOPD is highly trained, we have all these policies, we are governed by a federal consent decree and there are adequate guardrails. But a case like this [Celestine] shows that none of this is true.” Chris Kaiser, advocacy director of the ACLU of Louisiana said.

Louisiana law allows people to carry a concealed weapon, as long as they have a special permit. Therefore, just because a person’s jacket has a suspicious “bulge” that is still not enough evidence to justify a stop and frisk, leading to a year of imprisonment like in Celestine’s case.

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