Beset by a string of high-profile crimes over the past year, Beverly Hills plans to add more surveillance cameras to city streets. It’s a plan that has upset many civil libertarians and social justice activists, who say the ‘surveillance state’ poses serious privacy and equity concerns.
Despite its low crime rate, Beverly Hills is already one of the most highly surveilled cities in the world. There are 2,000 closed-circuit cameras, which comes out to 1 for every 16 residents. That doesn’t include traffic intersection cameras, drones or license plate readers.
At a recent city council meeting, Police Chief Mark Stainbrook discussed the possibility of a future operations center where private contractors could monitor camera, drone and license plate reader feeds. Currently, Beverly Hills city cameras aren’t monitored in real time but can be used in criminal investigations after a crime has been committed.
Eventually, the city wants “ubiquitous coverage” in the words of Assistant City Manager Nancy Hunt-Coffey.
Shobita Parthasarathy, director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy program at the University of Michigan, believes that’s dangerous.
“When you are in a heavily surveilled environment, the definition of wrong magically expands; people start to become much narrower about what becomes acceptable behavior,” Parthasarathy told the Los Angeles Times. “In a community, it could be about noise levels or it could be about how high your grass is growing or about what kind of lawn ornaments you have. And so there are all kinds of things that could become the domain of the criminal justice system.”
Critics say these systems can reinforce racial bias. There are already questions about policing in Beverly Hills. A Times investigation from last year found that Black individuals are arrested at disproportionately high rates in the city.
Some residents have expressed privacy concerns, but those seem to have taken a backseat amid an increase in crime. The smash-and-grabs already had the community on high alert. Then came the murder of philanthropist Jacqueline Avant in December. Fearful, many residents bought firearms to protect themselves.
Whether the cameras work to deter crime or not, they provide a sense of security in an affluent community that has suddenly come to feel insecure. For that reason alone, they’re likely to multiply.