Blown To Bits

Town of Brookline Opposes Surveillance Cameras

Thursday, December 4th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Surveillance cameras have been popping up where I live, in Brookline, Massachusetts, a town contiguous with Boston but with a very distinct history. And governance: we still have an old-fashioned Town Meeting, where the elected representatives of our districts are ordinary citizens, who work with a Town Manager, not a Mayor.

As reported in the Brookline Tab, our local paper, folks have had enough of the profusion of cameras. This one article has all the themes laid out; it could be a template for debates elsewhere. The police chief:

“It’s never been our intent, and it’s not our intent, to spy on people. It’s our intent to take advantage of technology to make Brookline a safe place.”

The righteous citizenry:

Opponents of the system — which include the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts, Brookline PAX, state Rep. Frank Smizik and several dozen residents — have described the system as the first step toward a slippery slope of police surveillance. Several residents referenced George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.”

The conformists:

If the board chooses to reject the cameras, it would be the only community in greater Boston not linked to the system.

The privacy zealots:

Several said they feared that the Department of Homeland Security could eventually demand access to footage from the cameras, or that hackers could break into the network and view live video feeds. Archived footage would also be subject to public records requests, meaning that any member of the public could potentially access stored videos — something that has concerned even town officials.

The free-speech libertarians:

Abram Chipman, a Washington Street resident who holds a weekly vigil in Coolidge Corner protesting the war in Iraq, said he would feel less comfortable knowing police could be watching his activities. Joan Lancourt, a resident of Beaconsfield Road, said she worried the cameras would have a “chilling effect” on political protest in Brookline. “I was dismayed, because the potential for self-censorship is real,” she said.

Maybe it’s not really about crime, but emergency evacuation:

“Having a camera allows for prenotice, of some degree, of what is coming on the roadway,” said Gary Toth, a Gardner Road resident and volunteer for the Community Emergency Response Team.

Or maybe it really is about crime:

Two test cameras have already aided in several incidents, including a sexual assault and drunken driving crash.

The article also raises the proper questions about cost and about how long the data will be retained.

I love this town, because of its diversity. My kids’ elementary school classes had scores of native languages. But the other thing it has is a diversity of ideas, and a population prepared to express them — a good, old-fashioned, blooming, buzzing democratic cacophony.

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