Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Surveillance Society Reshapes U.S. Justice as Profits Soar

  • Companies benefit from community call for police transparency
  • Public wants `Hollywood quality' video; it often disappoints

The expectation grew from fatal encounters with police in cities as varied as North Charleston, Cleveland and New York: What does the video show?

Images of violence are reshaping perceptions of justice -- and propelling an industry. Globally, the video surveillance market is projected to grow to $42.06 billion by 2020 from $13.98 billion in 2013, according to Indian research firm MarketsandMarkets.

Americans have become acclimated to surveillance, and business and law-enforcement agencies have created a network of cameras on buildings, lofted on poles and affixed to uniforms in an attempt at universal visibility. In Chicago, prosecutors Monday showed dark, grainy images from a police-car dashboard camera to explain why they weren’t charging an officer who shot a fleeing suspect in the back.

“When they hear video, everybody hopes it’s going to be Hollywood quality, but it’s not,” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said as she announced there would be no charges in the 2014 killing of Ronald Johnson. “We, as prosecutors, are changing the way we have to do things, because of the fact that we have communities and we have the public that want to know.”

Police vehicle camera showing Laquan McDonald

Source: Chicago Police Department via Getty Images

Chicago complied last month with a court order in a separate case to release a police video that showed an officer shooting Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, 16 times. The quality of that recording led to the officer being charged with first-degree murder. It also whetted the public appetite for more documentation.

British Panopticon

London was a pioneer in video security, setting up closed-circuit cameras in public spaces starting in the 1960s. Today there are as many as 5.9 million -- about one for every 11 residents in the U.K., according to a 2013 report from the British Security Industry Association.

In the U.S., the phenomenon took off in the 1990s, with cameras installed at banks after customers started getting robbed at ATMs. Cities soon followed with law-enforcement cameras. In the early 2000s, the cameras started appearing atop Chicago utility poles, their tell-tale blue lights glowing in the darkness. Then came speed monitors at intersections and cameras mounted on the dashboards of squad cars.

By year-end, buildings around the globe will carry about 297 million security cameras, including a 13 percent annual increase to 45 million in the U.S., according to research firm IHS.

When officials tout such technology, the marketplace sees opportunity. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Nov. 29 announced the police department would expand its body-worn camera program to cover about a third of its districts and shares of Digital Ally Inc. climbed as much as 12 percent the next day.

During a speech to the Chicago City Council on Wednesday to address police accountability, Emanuel discussed a zero-tolerance policy for patrol officers who fail to use dashboard cameras properly. He also apologized for the McDonald shooting and its aftermath.

“I take responsibility for what happened, because it happened on my watch,” Emanuel said. "I’m sorry.”

Inquiries for body cameras have jumped as much as 300 percent since a white police officer in August 2014 fatally shot a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, said Greg Dyer, law-enforcement division national sales manager at Digital Ally, a Lenexa, Kansas, maker of security products. In that case, there was no video, and protesters rioted after a grand jury didn’t indict the officer.

Interest in Digital Ally’s products has been booming ever since.

Standard Issue

“We’ve just scratched the surface on it,” said Dyer, who sees strong growth over the next three to four years. “The body camera will be part of the officer’s everyday uniform as much as his firearm.”

In September, the Justice Department awarded more than $23 million to 73 agencies in 32 states to spread the technology.

“The impact of body-worn cameras touches on a range of outcomes that build upon efforts to mend the fabric of trust, respect and common purpose that all communities need to thrive,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.

After London’s Metropolitan Police Service on Nov. 24 picked Taser International Inc. to outfit its 22,000 front-line officers with body cameras, the Scottsdale, Arizona-based company’s shares climbed as much as 9 percent that day. Twenty-eight other major law-enforcement agencies, including those in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, have purchased its body-cameras or other digital equipment, the company said in a Nov. 3 earnings release. Third-quarter net sales climbed 14 percent to $50.4 million from the year-earlier period.

“Private enterprise is great at taking advantage of opportunities and manipulating local governments,” said Rajiv Shah, an adjunct research professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I understand why people want it because of accountability, but it’s too early to tell whether this is going to work or not,” said Shah, whose research has shown Chicago has more than 25,000 cameras.

The public’s willingness to be watched has limits. Red-light cameras have come under attack from citizens who challenge their accuracy. After the Missouri Supreme Court struck down a St. Louis camera ordinance in August, the city said it would dismiss all pending citations. Since 2012, the number of U.S. communities using red-light cameras has dropped about 18 percent to 439, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia.

Police-shooting videos have proved to be even more controversial. During Monday’s news conference, two weeks after the officer’s indictment in the McDonald case, Alvarez and her deputies showed a dash-cam video of what they said was Johnson carrying a gun as he fled from officers, including one who shot him in the back.

To help justify the shooting, Alvarez turned to video again: this time of an unrelated incident in which a fleeing suspect shot an officer without even turning around to do it.

Just hours before, Lynch said her department would start a civil-rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department, a move prompted by the belated release Nov. 24 of the video showing an officer shooting Laquan McDonald, firing into his body even after he was on the ground. Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.

Meta Images

The indictment has done little to settle the controversy. In fact, attention has simply turned to different footage from that night in October 2014. A surveillance camera inside a nearby Burger King captured at least one officer standing in front of a monitor apparently connected to a camera trained on the area of the shooting outside the restaurant. The Burger King’s district manager later discovered an 86-minute gap in the record that covered the time of the killing.

Craig Futterman, a lawyer who founded the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago Law School, has accused the police of tampering with the security equipment.

“Burger King surveillance video was running while the officer erased them,” he told NPR in an interview. “There’s a videotape of the officer erasing the video.”

On Tuesday, Alvarez’s office said the “best evidence” was that no tampering occurred, but investigators are working with federal authorities and that anyone who altered the visual record would be prosecuted.

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