The reappointment of William Bratton as New York City Police Commissioner late last year was met with no small level of criticism about the man’s methods. In two successive decades, Bratton presided over the country’s two largest metropolitan police forces during periods of crime reduction–first New York City, in the ’90s, and then Los Angeles, in the ’00s. But the policing method his forces embraced and embodied were controversial.
Bratton’s brand of policing is premised on monitoring well-ordered urban environments for small crimes, like vandalism and petty theft, and stopping them from escalating into more serious crimes. That approach, known as the “broken windows theory,” argues that in order to beat big crime, you have to start small and early, before petty infractions become violent crimes. It’s a boots-on-the-ground, upward-looking strategy.
In theory, this sounds great–and it’s worked. But in practice, it can be used to justify controversial policy measures, like stop-and-frisk. Critics claim broken windows theory confuses correlation with causation, overlooks larger sociological factors that are the real root causes of crime, and is overly broad: when any vaguely unsanctioned behavior is subject to treatment as the seeds of something more insidious, the arm of the law grows long indeed.
So maybe it’s not all that surprising that Bratton, in a recent interview with the Daily News, advocated for the installment of security cameras in all subways cars. “One of my officers could actually be standing on a platform waiting for that train to come in,” Bratton said, “monitoring the cameras on that subway car to see if there’s an issue on that 10-car train that he wants to go and focus on.” There are already more than 4,000 security cameras in the transit system, all of which are located near station entrances or in nonpublic areas. Increased surveillance, theoretically, would keep straphangers and MTA employees safer, and could also help locate children or people with mental illnesses who go missing.
Other major American cities have implemented security cameras, or are debating similar measures. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is hoping for funding to put cameras on new trains by 2019, and Chicago recently installed cameras in 830 “L” cars with a $13.9 million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security. A Chicago Transit Authority spokeswoman told the Daily News that in the first three months of this year, the number of arrests for vandalism and graffiti charges matched the total for all of last year.
All of this sounds good in theory, too. But it’s indicative of a larger, post-9/11 creep toward ubiquitous surveillance, eroding privacy, and personal data collection on enormous scales. The problem is not cameras in subway cars; the problem is extending yet more power to an intelligence/policing agency that’s been known to abuse it. It’s a slippery slope from empowering our police force to act in the name of terror prevention to something like targeted, extrajudicial surveillance of minority groups.
At Bratton’s swearing in on January 2, 2014, the new Police Commissioner praised his predecessor, Raymond Kelly, but also declared his intention to strike a more conciliatory tone with ordinary New Yorkers who had become disillusioned the NYPD. “We will all work hard to identify why is it that so many in this city do not feel good about this department that has done so much to make them safe,” he said. It’s a safe bet that expanding the city’s surveillance system is not what ordinary New Yorkers had in mind.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.