A Look Back: New York Times Editorial 21 Years Ago – “Police Cameras in the Park” (Series: Part 1)

Community Board Meeting with NYPD on June 24 to Address Washington Sq Park

Community Board 2 will be holding a joint meeting of the Parks and Social Services committees with the NYPD Sixth Precinct on Monday, June 24th to discuss “Quality of Life” issues in Washington Square Park. It appears to this blog that this meeting – which was called by CB2, not because the NYPD asked for it – is likely about installing gates at the entrances (something the community has adamantly not wanted, and this blog has covered in the past) and, separately, drug dealing issues. The latter was the reason cameras were allegedly installed in the park by Mayor Giuliani in early 1998. At the time, this was considered controversial and unwelcome.

Also of note is that the city Parks Department and members of the Community Board insisted – prior and during the redesign of the park – that the redesign itself would – voilà! – resolve these issues. So what gives?

This “joint” meeting, called as a special meeting now out of the blue, brings up questions as to what the intention is. It presents an opportunity to revisit the history of surveillance and other issues at Washington Square Park.

Editorial from the New York Times, February 9, 1998: “Police Cameras in the Park”

Even though there is generally no expectation of privacy in a public space, most people expect freedom from government monitoring when they eat lunch on a park bench or stroll down a street. The growing use of police video monitors in New York City may threaten the free and anonymous nature of public space.

The use of surveillance cameras at automated teller machines may help deter robbery and provide users a sense of safety, but placing police cameras in open public spaces is a very different matter. The installation of cameras at Washington Square Park is a good example of the misapplication of this strategy. Two cameras have been installed on the southern edge of the park to deter drug-dealing. The cameras may provide evidence against apprehended suspects. But unlike a police officer, they create a record of all lawful activity and behavior as well.

Before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir expand video monitoring to cover more areas of the city, there needs to be significant public debate about the wisdom of 24-hour videotaping of lawful movement. Cameras have been put into one public housing project with the approval of the residents. But cameras have also been mounted in some areas of the subway system, and now in Washington Square, with no public discussion. The police consider camera surveillance an inexpensive addition to uniformed officers. But this is a fundamental change in policing strategy that essentially assumes that all behavior within the cameras’ view is suspicious.

The Police Department has said that videotapes from Washington Square Park will be erased after seven days. The department must also insure that tapes capturing lawful citizens are not used for improper monitoring. The right to be let alone includes the right not to be caught on videotape.

It’s interesting to read, right?, noting how mostly okay much of society now is with being surveilled.

More on these issues and this meeting to come but mark your calendar:

Joint meeting Community Board 2 PARKS/ WATERFRONT and SOCIAL SERVICES committees
Monday, June 24 @ 6:30 p.m. – NYU Silver Building, 32 Waverly Place, Room 401 – off Washington Square East
[Accessible entrance is located at 31 Washington Place]

“Discussion with NYPD 6th precinct over safety and quality of life issues in Washington Square Park and in 6th precinct in general, and proposals to improve enforcement of park closing hours.”

Part II: CB 2 Calls Special Meeting to Discuss “Quality of Life” Issues at Washington Square Park June 24

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