Defund the Police, but Don’t Replace It With Surveillance Tech

Defund the Police, but Don’t Replace It With Surveillance Tech

In order to stop a power grab from surveillance companies and tech giants, we need to define what policing is

The weeks of uprisings across America in response to the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others have been overshadowed by just one thing: the response to that response. Protests against police brutality and violence have been met with unprecedented police brutality and violence.

As frightening as it has been to watch, the response also provides a glimmer of hope: For perhaps the first time, a serious discussion about defunding the police is taking place in mainstream American politics and media. “Regardless of your view on police power — whether you want to get rid of the police or simply to make them less violent, here’s an immediate demand we can all make: Cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in half,” the organizer Mariame Kaba wrote in the New York Times. “Fewer police officers equals fewer opportunities for them to brutalize and kill people.”

It’s an immediate and effective strategy, and one American cities should adopt right now. But there are powerful unseen implications to consider. Shifts in established power structures present not only opportunities for political and cultural change, but also for exploitation and profiteering. As we push to defund police forces, we must not allow private contractors and technology companies to seep in, fill the void, and repeat — or even exacerbate — the same disastrous mistakes.

Take, for example, the city of Camden, NJ, the subject of a recent explosion of op-eds and news reports. In 2013, the city defunded and ultimately disbanded its police force after decades of poverty, neglect, and state-enforced austerity measures lead to spiraling crime and ever more violent responses from aggressive law enforcement. A new county-level police force was established that embraced “community policing,” a nebulous term that often appears to be code for “public relations exercise.”

“When our new officers hit the street after training, one of the first things they do is knock on doors and introduce themselves to residents, and hand out a business card,” Camden County executive Louis Cappelli Jr told Marketplace. “We have pop-up block parties. We have free ice cream for kids.” As far as the media and local government are concerned, it’s been a huge success. Homicide rates are down, as are complaints of excessive force. But for some experts, including Brendan McQuade of the University of Southern Maine’s criminology department, the situation isn’t clear cut.

“Camden is not a model for structural change. It’s an obstacle to it,” McQuade recently wrote on The Appeal. “Fawning media profiles describe barbecues, ice cream trucks, and basketball games. They don’t mention surveillance systems: 121 cameras that monitor the entire city; 35 ShotSpotter microphones to detect gunshots; automated scanners that read license plates; and SkyPatrol, a mobile observation post that can scan six square blocks with thermal-imaging equipment.”

tech privacy police surveillance artificial-intelligence

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