Big Brother is watching Camden, N.J.
A Rolling Stone article published earlier this month highlighted the intense surveillance tactics police have employed in an effort to drive out drugs and reduce crime in Camden, one of America’s most dangerous cities.
It sounds pretty intimidating:
Energized county officials say they have a plan now for retaking Camden’s streets one impenetrable neighbourhood at a time, using old-school techniques like foot patrols and simple get-to-know-you community interactions (new officers stop and talk to residents as a matter of strategy and policy). But the plan also involves the use of space-age cameras and military-style surveillance, which ironically will turn this crumbling dead-poor dopescape of barred row homes and deserted factories into a high-end proving ground for futuristic crowd-control technology.
One hundred and 20-one cameras cover virtually every inch of sidewalk here, cameras that can spot a stash in a discarded pack of Newports from blocks away. Police have a giant 30-foot mobile crane called SkyPatrol they can park in a neighbourhood and essentially throw a net over six square blocks; the ungainly Japanese-robot-style device can read the heat signature of a dealer with a gun sitting in total darkness. There are 35 microphones planted around the city that can instantly detect the exact location of a gunshot down to a few meters (and just as instantly train cameras on escape routes). Planted on the backs of a fleet of new cruisers are Minority Report-style scanners that read licence plates and automatically generate warning letters to send to your mum in the suburbs if you’ve been spotted taking the Volvo registered in her name to score a bag of Black Magic on 7th and Vine.
Surprisingly, Camden residents (some of them, anyway) don’t seem too bothered by it.
Laura Sanchez told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “20 years ago, I would have been on the civil liberties side, but now I think the [surveillance] is absolutely wonderful. … People who live in the city have rights, too. We have a right not to be worried about a drug trade fuelled by people from the suburbs. I’m sick of it.”
Residents themselves might even gain access to these cameras eventually. The South Jersey Times reports that police are considering allowing block captains and community leaders to view some of the camera feeds in their own homes so they can monitor certain street corners and report any problems to police.
And the “Real Time Tactical Information Center” inside the county police building provides feeds to every street-corner camera on 10 42-inch TVs.
At the computer monitors in the information center, cops can conduct “virtual patrols” and “walk” down city streets to keep watch over the city’s drug markets without having to set foot in them.
Matt Taibbi, the Rolling Stone reporter who profiled Camden, described one neighbourhood as “less policed than occupied.” And it’s not all technological surveillance.
From the article:
He nods in the direction of a street corner, where a policeman in a paramilitary-style uniform, all steel-blue with a baseball-style cap, stands on guard. There’s one of these sentries every few hundred feet, each seemingly within eyesight of the other, each standing bolt upright and saluting military-style when the chief drives by. We watch as a few elderly black pedestrians amble by, and if you listen carefully you can catch the street patrolmen diligently offering RoboCop-ian greetings to each one as they pass.
It seems the new tactics — as well as wiping out the city’s police department in favour of a cheaper, county-run operation — are working. Violent crime dropped 3% in 2013, and there was a 14% decline in non-violent crime compared to the previous year, according to The Star-Ledger.
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