NMA E-Newsletter #276: When the Watchers become the Watched

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
(From the Latin: Who’s watching the watchmen?)

Think about the web of surveillance that surrounds our daily lives: Google tracks our online behavior. The cable company knows what we watch on TV. Our smart phones track our movements. Government agencies monitor our electronic communications and take pictures of our vehicle license plates. Our cars record our driving habits. In fact, a Ford executive recently revealed: “We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing.”

So, in this age when everyday citizens are monitored 24/7, we appreciate the irony when the microphones and cameras are turned on those who normally do the monitoring.

It recently came to light that Los Angeles police officers had sabotaged voice recorders in dozens of cruisers to avoid being monitored while on duty. LAPD investigators found that roughly half of the 80 cars in one patrol division were missing antennas that are part of the vehicle’s dash cam system. The antennas receive audio signals from the officer’s belt-worn transmitter capturing what officers say in the field. Antennas from at least 10 other cars from other divisions had been removed as well.

LAPD top brass admitted knowledge of the tampering but chose not to investigate. Instead they issued warnings against continued subterfuge and tried to implement an antenna monitoring system. A recent follow-up audit revealed that dozens of the transmitters worn by officers have been damaged or are missing.

Clearly, some LAPD patrol officers don’t like being monitored, and their superiors seem indifferent to it. As one observer aptly put it: “…it shows that the police, just like all of us, react viscerally to being watched all the time. Pervasive surveillance of this sort makes us jittery and distracted; it’s stressful as we all need times and places—even during the work day—when we can be alone and be ourselves!”

The point? Cops are people, too, gosh darn it!

Here’s another one. The recently negotiated Boston Police Department labor contract mandates the installation of GPS trackers in all police cruisers. Police officials say it will make day-to-day policing safer and more efficient, but rank-and-file officers are putting up a fuss. As one officer complained to the Boston Globe:

‘No one likes it. Who wants to be followed all over the place?’ said one officer who spoke anonymously because department rules forbid police from speaking to the media without authorization. ‘If I take my cruiser and I meet [reluctant witnesses] to talk, eventually they can follow me and say why were you in a back dark street for 45 minutes? It’s going to open up a can of worms that can’t be closed.’

Lastly, the residents of Arivaca, Arizona, know what it’s like to live under constant, pervasive government surveillance. When the Border Control set up shop there (25 miles from the Mexican border) residents were told the roadside checkpoints were temporary. Six years later, the town is surrounded by no fewer than three permanent roadblocks, surveillance drones and helicopters routinely buzz overhead, and monitoring towers are a permanent fixture on the landscape.

Residents grew weary of the constant scrutiny and harassment that included warrantless roadside interrogations and detentions. So they began to lawfully record Border Patrol agents conducting checkpoint operations. The agents were not amused and told the observers to leave the area. When that didn’t work, agents claimed authority over a public thoroughfare. When that didn’t work, they set up barriers and obstructions to keep the public as far away from the roadblocks as possible.

The ACLU is now demanding that the Border Patrol allow citizens to record their activities or face litigation. The ACLU argues correctly that citizens have the First Amendment right to photograph government activity taking place in plain sight on a public street.

Turns out the watchers don’t like being watched. Perhaps we should ask them the same question they always ask us: What do you have to hide?

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