Disparities in Policing, Punishment, and Policy

Disparities in Policing, Punishment, and Policy

Surveillance proponents often argue that mass monitoring tools allow police to discover crimes as they happen. But when police departments single out minority and low-income neighborhoods for special scrutiny, they risk exacerbating the serious racial, ethnic, and class disparities in our criminal justice system.

[S]election for targeted surveillance is, at the outset, differentiated by… variables of age, race, and gender… In short, the young, the male, and the black were systematically and disproportionately targeted, not because of their involvement in crime or disorder, but for ‘no obvious reason’ and on the basis of categorical suspicion alone.

Clive Norris, European Parliament review of CCTV Surveillance Policies, April 2009

DESCRIPTION

Surveillance proponents often argue that mass monitoring tools allow police to discover crimes as they happen. But when police departments single out minority and low-income neighborhoods for special scrutiny, they risk exacerbating the serious racial, ethnic, and class disparities in our criminal justice system.

Multiple studies have shown that mass surveillance tools like camera networks have little impact on crime levels. If police concentrate surveillance systems on particular areas or particular groups, however, the crimes they do detect will naturally reflect that bias. Research into surveillance camera networks has shown that operators target men, youth, and people of color for scrutiny at highly disproportionate rates. Moreover, some cities have installed advanced surveillance systems in neighborhoods largely populated by minority groups. In each case, the disproportionate attention could lead to more arrests and sharper disparities that don’t necessarily reflect the actual patterns of crime in a city.

Racial, ethnic, and class disparities in the criminal justice system tend to be self-perpetuating. If disproportionate surveillance leads to higher rates of arrest for minorities, minority neighborhoods may be viewed as hotbeds of crime that require even more intrusive monitoring. If residents of those neighborhoods feel unfairly targeted for scrutiny, they may develop mistrust for local police. Not only is mass surveillance intrusive and largely ineffective, it may actually hurt police departments’ efforts to work within the community and investigate crime.

 

Examples of Use

  • Boston, MA
    Location:: 
    Boston, MA
    Targeting License Plates, Targeting People

    In December 2013, the ACLU of Massachusetts called for a statewide moratorium on the use of automatic license plate readers. It came on the heels of an investigation by Muckrock.org and the Boston Globe that revealed serious abuses in the Boston Police Department’s ALPR program. A review of the system revealed that the police used the system for intelligence collection, not to investigate crimes. One of the most disturbing revelations was data suggesting that the department had specifically targeted low-income and African American areas of the city. The large troves of ALPR data released in public records showed that the license plates scanned were disproportionately registered to addresses in the city’s Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, South Boston, and Brighton neighborhoods. This data suggested that the BPD was using these devices largely in minority neighborhoods. If the Boston ALPR program does indeed unfairly target these neighborhoods, it may have the effect not only of exacerbating existing disparities – it may contribute to the city’s historically difficult race relations.

Recommendations

When government agencies consider acquiring and using surveillance systems, communities and their elected officials must both weigh the benefits against the costs to civil liberties and carefully craft policies and procedures that help to limit the negative effects that surveillance will have on fundamental rights.  For a useful list of considerations, please visit the recommendations page.

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