by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hose gawking at bombs bursting in air during the Fourth of July celebration in Riverfront Park may not have noticed something gawking at them: On the light post by the gondola booth, above a red-white-and-blue banner, hung a gray box holding a surveillance camera. The camera, a sleek model with a white sculpted aesthetic -- think of it as an eyePod -- could be operated remotely, panning, scanning and zooming on anything of interest.
Another camera, perched on the top of the carousel, gazed past the squawking seagulls, across the Spokane River, to the field beyond.
The cameras were two out of an undisclosed number in the park. They beamed live images through cyberspace to computers at a nearby Spokane police command post, where officers used them to monitor throngs of people -- as well as a scheduled march of anarchists and anti-capitalists on the same day [see story on page 13]. A similar rally last year ended with 17 arrests.
Not surprisingly, when surveillance cameras start coming out, so do the George Orwell references.
"I think most of us -- people that are concerned about our eroding civil liberties -- think it's just one more straw on the camel's back as far as the Big Brother approach to crowd control," says Rusty Nelson, co-director for the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane. "I think having a friendly and responsible presence in the park would be more effective than having an axe hanging over the event like that."
Breean Beggs from the Center For Justice agrees. "Most people probably feel like having secret surveillance on the anniversary of our freedom and independence feels contradictory," Beggs says. "I don't think we're the type of country that appreciates having people watch us and record it."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & rom the police perspective, having cameras in the park is a matter of safety. With around 50,000 people milling about, all sorts of problems can occur, says police spokeswoman Jennifer DeRuwe. "There's all sorts of crimes that occur ... It's not just anarchists or protesters or drunk transients or Mom and Dad getting into a fight."
Having a full view of the park, in real time, makes it much easier for command and control to effectively control and command. In spite of the cameras, or maybe because of them, the park was calm this year. Patrol Capt. Steve Braun says only two arrests were made, and the cameras only zoomed in once: To investigate complaints of a disturbance. Nothing was found.
The decision to install temporary cameras at Riverfront Park comes less than six months after the City Council approved automated traffic-ticketing cameras at some intersections. City Administrator Ted Danek says there's no connection between the two decisions; they're not part of a bigger strategy, and there hasn't been any discussion about joining cities like New York, San Francisco and London by installing permanent CCTV surveillance cameras.
While the red light cameras were approved only after intense discussion and a vote from the City Council, the decision to purchase surveillance cameras using police department discretionary funds and install them temporarily in the park came entirely from the police department, Danek says. "The employment of cameras has been the chief's decision," he says. "We fully support it."
The Spokane Police Department has used cameras for surveillance before -- usually in investigation -- but Independence Day marked the first time the Spokane police used such a network for keeping tabs on large crowds, says Braun. The July 4th installation was temporary and the cameras have already been removed from the park. But their use for other large events -- like Hoopfest or Pig Out in the Park -- is "probably a sure thing," Braun says.
"Overall, I think it was a great tool," he says.
While the department declined to say exactly where the cameras were stationed (for fear of vandalism), Braun stresses that the cameras weren't meant to be a secret. Park literature and the front page of last Wednesday's Spokesman-Review both openly spoke of the existence of the surveillance.
If that knowledge makes people a little less likely to break the law, all the better, DeRuwe says. Besides, adds Braun, such surveillance isn't exactly unusual in our society. "Go into a bank and you're videotaped." Braun says. "Go into the Wal-Mart, you'll be videotaped."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & here's not a clear constitutional problem with monitoring public parks via camera surveillance, says Brooks Holland, assistant law professor at Gonzaga University. Since public parks are public places, people don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy. So the Fourth Amendment, with all its hang-ups about unreasonable search and seizure, probably wouldn't apply.
However, if the police department only videotaped a specific racial, political or religious group -- say, only blacks or Muslims or anarchists or Unitarians or pretty women -- Holland says that may violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Braun stresses that, at Riverfront, the cameras were set to their widest angle possible, and left alone unless officers noticed something suspicious or had a report called in. They weren't used to track anybody in the park.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington worries that installing a few cameras will lead to dozens more. An ACLU statement says claims that surveillance cameras deter criminals are incorrect. Cameras simply divert the crime to other locations. "When crime moves, officials are then pressured to install more and more cameras -- pushing us toward a 'surveillance society' where the government watches and records all our activities," the statement reads. "This makes us neither more safe, nor more free."
Yet, there's a curious point that the Spokane Police Department and its critics essentially agree on: Cameras can monitor police behavior, too. "Some of the best tools for documenting government civil rights abuses have been video cameras," Beggs says.
In fact, it was video footage from a Zip Trip surveillance camera that ultimately contradicted the accounts of Spokane police officers involved in the controversial 2006 arrest of Otto Zehm, who died in the struggle.
During last year's anarchist march, police did record the activities of protesters, but only with handheld cameras. The footage was jumpy. The lens cap was on for much of it. And signs obscured the video of officers making a felony arrest, the facts of which were later disputed.
Beggs suspects the cameras were installed partly as a reaction to last year's protester-cop conflict. The important thing, Beggs says, is "if video images have been recorded, they will not be used selectively to further one party's particular goals." That includes not using the panning and zoom features to avoid recording key information. "It's too bad that it's come to this," he says. "But hopefully the lemonade that can be made out of it is that it can protect people from government abuse."[email protected]