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Coming soon: more police-state tactics

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Despite its name, the city of Pittsburgh’s “Port Security Project RFI” doesn’t have much to do with ports. And while the initials RFI stand for “Request for Information,” the document’s entire purpose is that the next time the city wants information, it won’t have to ask. It can just look at the tape instead.

The “Port Security Project” is all about creating a web of video surveillance, first in Downtown, and then citywide. According to the RFI — which was issued June 20 to companies who may one day build that surveillance network — the goal is “to deter and prevent terrorist activity from exploiting the City of Pittsburgh.” In the process, the video network will establish “safe river passage, secure business districts, and safe neighborhoods to allow Pittsburgh to remain ‘America’s Most Livable City.’”

The plan is ambitious. Its initial phase “involves the placement of 28 pan tilt zoom cameras on 14 bridges, … 4 Pan-Tilt-Zoom Mega Pixel cameras on top of the USX building, 3 gunshot location and detection camera systems in 2 city Neighborhoods and Point State Park.”
Your first thought here is: Great, now the terrorists know where the cameras will be! Your second thought is … if terrorists struck Point State Park, would anyone even notice?

But that’s just the beginning. In phase 2, the city will install cameras around neighborhood business districts; in addition to reducing crime, we’ll finally all learn who urinates on Carson Street, and who shops at the Walnut Street Talbot’s. Phase 3 will target selected “high-risk neighborhoods” with significant crime.

Yes, it all sounds pretty Orwellian. But this isn’t going to be some privacy-rights screed, largely because no one cares. Consider the weekend of June 30, when the British fended off a handful of botched car-bomb attacks. While our own government said it had no evidence of a terrorist threat in the United States — let alone in Pittsburgh — cops began randomly searching cars at the Pittsburgh International Airport anyway.

Searching cars in Pittsburgh because of an attack in London makes as much sense as … as … well, as starting a war in Iraq because of an attack launched from Afghanistan. But then terrorism is all about the triumph of fear over reason. If people don’t object to having their cars searched for no good reason, they aren’t likely to balk at video surveillance.

In fact, when you think about it, it’s strange that botched attacks in Europe scare us more than homicides next door. I mean, there was a shooting outside a Homewood church service earlier this year, yet police didn’t begin frisking parishioners over in Fox Chapel.

The very idea sounds absurd, though I’m not sure why. The difference, I guess, is that terrorism is supposed to be “random,” a word that usually means “capable of being directed even at me.” For most of us, homicides in “high-risk neighborhoods” don’t qualify. So they get cameras instead; if residents surrender some privacy to city cameras, maybe they won’t have to surrender their wallets, or worse. Let ’em eat tape.

Mayor Ravenstahl and Police Chief Nate Harper insist the cameras will focus on crime, not African Americans. If that’s true, it will be just about the only law-enforcement technique that doesn’t focus on blacks. In a recently released report, the University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP) found that within city limits, blacks have arrest rates nearly four times higher than the rate for whites.

Cameras might change that trend if they were put in corporate boardrooms, or the homes of police officers Ravenstahl intended to promote. But these cameras are going on the streets. And the problem is the more they look at, the less we’ll actually see.

Sure, the cameras will capture drug dealers plying their trade in “high-risk neighborhoods.” But they won’t show how they got to be there. They won’t show that — again, according to the CRSP — black poverty rates in Pittsburgh are twice those of whites. Or that only one-third of black students meet proficiency standards in reading by their junior year of high school.

But whether we’re fighting a war on terror or a war on crime, our strategies haven’t changed. We’re still playing global cop abroad, while deploying police-state tactics at home.

If the city were really serious about “allow[ing] Pittsburgh to remain ‘America’s Most Livable City,’” I know how I’d respond to its Request for Information.

I’d mail back a copy of the CSRP report.

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