Ensuring public buy-in for municipal surveillance is key

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.

According the San Francisco Chronicle, heated demonstrations were going on outside the city council chambers as the vote was being taken. One demonstrator was quoted as saying that the Domain Awareness Center would be the guard tower which would watch over every person in the city of Oakland.  He went on to say that the program was an attempt to criminalize and imprison all people who live and pass through the city of Oakland.

The surveillance center’s costs are expected to total more than $10.2 million in federal grants, and while legislators said they were cognizant of residents’ security and it’s privacy rights while drafting the bill, it is apparent that there might not have been enough straightforward marketing to the public. 

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating: what ties together future innovation and implementation of safe and secured cities initiatives is the realization that many strategic plans hinge on the fate of public buy-in, budget realities and crumbling urban infrastructure.

 Most American cities are faced with horrific budget cuts that have gouged deep into law enforcement and public safety projects. And the prospects of taxpayers approving new spending seem to lessen with every election cycle. Add the frightening decay of basic critical infrastructure, it is easy to see the challenges any municipality faces in moving forward with relevant projects.

If you are interested in learning more about safe and secured cites initiatives and hearing from actual implementers of these programs, please go to www.securedcities.com to learn more about our Secured Cities Conference taking place on November 14-15 in Baltimore.

With more than 60 educational tracks covering technology solutions, management and operations, and best practices in the areas of public safety, campus, healthcare and transit security, Secured Cities in the only peer-led conference of its kind in the U.S. to address the public/private partnerships needed to forge successful safe and secured city strategies.

There will also be opportunities to see some of the latest in technology and security solutions with more than 70 solution provider sponsors available in the sponsor’s hall.

In addition to the sponsor’s hall and educational sessions, Secured Cities will also offer three unique security facility tours on the event’s final day. You can pre-register for tours of the Baltimore PD’s Citiwatch Command and Control Center, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s state-wide command center, and security operations at the University of Maryland’s Shock and Trauma Center.

As conference and program director, I encourage you to register today at https://www.xpressreg.net/esite/index.php?show=SCMD113  to experience firsthand where the future of public safety in tomorrow’s cities are headed.

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