Ensuring public buy-in for municipal surveillance is key

The onus is on government and law enforcement to make the case for implementation and spending

As more and more municipalities move toward establishing technology-based “safe zones” for their inner city business districts and aligned infrastructure, the onus is on the stakeholders and law enforcement to ensure that the public they serve understand the concept.

Banging the drum for tighter security, video surveillance systems and the monitoring of personal communications was an easy sell following the events of September 11, 2001. There was a tangible threat, as well as a national spirit of unification that seemed to beg for more government intervention in securing its citizenry.

But here we are more than 12 years after 9-11, and the call to arms that drove many government and agency security initiatives then aren’t as easily accepted as necessary or even legal now. What with revelations of the NSA’s overreach and the perceived public view that foreign terrorism isn’t quite the menace it was when the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein was front page news, Americans have taken a more cautious approach to how government and law enforcement policy is implemented and how the dollars are spent.

Today, the motive must be clear and precise. How government and law enforcement conduct outreach for new security projects within their purview is not so different from the private sector. Within the private sector, understanding how security aligns with the organization and fostering positive buy-in from the constituency are key components to any project’s adoption – and ultimately -  its success.

For every municipality that has realized their program will only be as good as the public’s understanding of it, there are those that might benefit from a counseling session. Take for instance, the city of Oakland. This California city received millions of dollars in federal grant money this year for a municipal security project that many citizens charged was sold under false pretenses.

Critics assert the intention of the grant was to stop terrorism. When the new program launches early in 2014, police will be able to track drivers as they travel through tolls, scan license plates with more than 3,000 video surveillance cameras placed throughout the city. Law enforcement will also be able to monitor social media platforms to learn about crimes before they occur and will be installing gun-shot detection technology to help stem the rising number of city murders.

The Oakland program, officially referred to as the Domain Awareness Center, is modeled after the New York Police Department’s expansive video and security system. Developed as a one of the most sophisticated counter-terrorist surveillance networks following the attacks of 9-11, the NYPD is now expanding its use, giving local precinct commanders new powers to fight street crime with these high-tech tools and video surveillance.

"The technology, having been inspired and engineered with a sense of urgency after 9/11, has obvious applications to conventional crime fighting," Paul Browne, chief NYPD spokesman recently told Reuters.  "That is in the process of being expanded citywide, for what - after all - is our primary mission, which is to fight crime."

New York is among a handful of big U.S. cities that have been developing extensive surveillance networks in recent years using federal anti-terrorism funding. New York's network was initially modeled after London's so-called 'Ring of Steel,' the most extensive surveillance camera network anywhere. But when the NYPD began implementation of their system, job one was to make sure all players in the city understood the end game.

That brings me back to Oakland. The Oakland City Council vote might have been unanimous to adopt the plan to build their surveillance center, which will be staffed 24 hours a day, but they apparently didn’t coordinate the message with the public. The Oakland deployment has been one of the most contentious of any recent municipal video and security system projects in the country.

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