When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO, there was no video of it. When Denis Reynoso was shot in Lynn, MA, there was no video of it. But what if there had been? And what if police bodycams could significantly reduce incidents of use of force by police?
Responding to this need, Digital Fourth took model legislation developed by the Harvard Black Law Students Association that mandates bodycams for police departments, modified it for Massachusetts, and got a bill filed on Beacon Hill. This session was the first time our gallant volunteers have tried anything like this, and we got a strong response. Sen. Jamie Eldridge filed the bill in the Senate; Rep. Denise Provost filed it in the House; and it has already attracted as cosponsors Rep. Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield), Rep. Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) and Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston).
The bill is a result of months of consultation with interested police departments and grapples with some difficult issues – how would bodycam data be used? When would officers be required to record? What about the consent of the people being filmed? It sets up a blue-ribbon committee to review traffic stops, pedestrian stops, and bodycam footage, requires police officers to carry bodycams in almost all circumstances, and sets strong controls on the use and dissemination of the footage.
As this appears to be the only bodycams bill that got filed in the 2015-16 session, we believe that our bill represents the best chance of fostering a discussion about reducing on-the-ground unreasonable searches and seizures – the bread and butter of the Fourth Amendment – and that it could substantially improve relations between the police and communities of color in particular. Community-police relations directly affects those working on policy initiatives: One of the people advising on our bill, Segun Idowu, chairman of the Boston Police Cameras Action Team, was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest and is currently facing trial.
“Our research, inspired by current events, confirms that community/police relations may be improved with the use of this technology, as bodycams will provide a truth that has no color,” said McKenzie Morris, President of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. “This legislation, albeit a first step, is a necessary endeavor for the pursuit of transparency and accountability in policing.”
Finally, after many years of effort, the ACLU of MA has been able to secure release and analysis (by a third party) of data on police stops in Boston. What was found should grossly offend anyone with a belief that people ought to be equal before the law.
Their data spans 2007-2010, covering reported stops that did not result in arrest. During that time, for fully three-quarters of such stops, the reason the police stated for the stop was not suspicion of any identifiable crime, but simply “Investigate Person.”
Without your knowledge or permission, your smartphone’s calls could be being intercepted right now by your local police department, and your taxes are definitely being misused to pay for unconstitutional police snooping.
We have reported before on “stingrays”, which started being used by local police departments in around 2006. These devices impersonate a cellphone tower and intercept the calls that would otherwise flow to other actual nearby towers. Initially bulky, stingrays can now be laptop-sized or smaller, and the most advanced models are light enough to be carried by drones. Police departments conceal their use of this technology when applying for warrants to conduct surveillance, so judges can’t distinguish between applying for a “regular” interception on an individual phone and a stingray interception which gathers all traffic from nearby cellphone towers. The devices’ main manufacturer, Harris Corporation, even obliges police departments contractually to conceal their use of stingrays. The Obama administration is so keen to preserve the cloak of secrecy around stingrays that they sent in the US Marshals to prevent the ACLU from obtaining documents relating to stingray use by a north Florida police department. The courts are beginning to recognize the intrusive nature of cellphone tower dump data, but have not yet grappled with the fact that using stingrays, law enforcement don’t have to ask a cellphone company for the data; they can just suck it up without permission.
Now there is a new way to rip that cloak. Popular Science quotes the CEO of ESD America, which manufactures the $3,500 “CryptoPhone 500”, eagerly describing how his phones could detect when stingrays were being used in their vicinity. While testing the CryptoPhone 500 in August, users found 17 sites around the country where stingrays appeared to be being used on passersby. They could detect the use of stingrays because stingrays downgrade your connection from 4G to the less secure 2G and then turn off your phone’s encryption. Normal Android smartphones or IPhones are oblivious to this process.
Twitter users have been speculating whether these 17 sites map onto the sites of fusion centers around the country. Since we’re familiar with both stingrays and fusion centers, we can say conclusively that they don’t. Most sites seem to be in commercial areas, not around fusion center or military locations. ESD is not providing the precise site locations, and stingrays’ mobility further complicates the process of detecting them. We think that CryptoPhone users have captured what is likely to be only a small subset of stingray usage not by fusion centers, or by the NSA, but by regular local police departments around the nation. We’re supporting the efforts of researchers like Muckrock who want to get more transparency about stingray use by police departments, and to keep an eye out for proposals in your community to “upgrade” police department technology.
So, do we all have to go out and upgrade to the CryptoPhone 500 in order to feel safe in our communications? Well, no; there’s another, cheaper way to find out whether the government is using stingrays in your community.
On February 18, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared that here in Massachusetts, state cops actually do have to get a warrant if they want to access your cellphone location data.
This is what an independent judiciary looks like. The Justices of our Supreme Judicial Court have withstood over half a century of New England winters. They have endured the long decades of the Curse of the Bambino. Their knotted muscles are carved from whalers’ scrimshaw.They are not to be messed with. The obsequious servants of the surveillance state on the FISA Court could learn a thing or two from them.
Kade Crockford reports that DHS has awarded the MBTA $7 million to refit its buses with fancy new surveillance cameras. Why? Oh, no reason in particular. But the MBTA is at pains to point out that they spent none of their own money on the project. What’s wrong with free money?
Let me tell you what’s wrong with free money. Whether it’s coming from MBTA, DHS, the NSA or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it all comes from you and me in the end, and I care just the same about whether it’s being spent wisely.
Just before Christmas, Muckrock and the ACLU of Massachusetts brought out excellent articles based on a full year of Muckrock’s investigative reporting into Boston PD’s use of automated license plate recognition technology.
ALPR systems automatically photograph and store in a police database the license plates of any car an ALPR-equipped police vehicle passes. The car may be parked or driving. It could be on the Pike, in a driveway, or anywhere a camera can reach. The question was, what does the Boston PD do with the mountain of data once it has it?
The city of Cambridge, MA is considering whether to switch on its network of surveillance cameras. Councillor Craig Kelley, who chairs the Public Safety Subcommittee [UPDATE: and whom, I should make clear, is skeptical about the merits of surveillance camera systems, scheduled seven public hearings on the newly proposed Security Camera Policy, but like most subcommittee hearings, they were relatively poorly attended]. The City Council voted unanimously on July 2 to ask the Mayor and the City Manager to arrange a better-publicized meeting to discuss the Policy.
That Her Honor the Mayor and the City Manager be and hereby is requested to arrange a community meeting with other stakeholders to discuss the proposed Security Camera Policy submitted by the Police Department for implementation.
Today, by the finish line of the Boston Marathon, on the same city block as the church I go to, two bombs went off. I feel shocked and sad beyond belief.
My thoughts and prayers are with those who died or were hurt, with their families, and with all the people stranded in Boston on this cold night.
The former district attorney of Middlesex County, Gerry Leone, has taken to the airwaves to talk about how great the efforts have been before this attack to get a Joint Terrorism Task Force going, how well it has been working together, how smooth the state and federal collaboration has been, and how the appropriate response will be to increase random surveillance. Governor Patrick has also echoed his perspective, talking about the need for increased vigilance and random bag searches on the MBTA, which we have covered, and opposed, before.
It won’t surprise regular readers to know that my perspective on this is a little different and more skeptical. Even while massively and systematically abusing the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement wasn’t able to prevent this attack. The amount of data collected through warrantless electronic means by the centers Leone is talking about has been vast, and none of it, none of it, has thwarted a terrorist attack. Now, once again, they have failed us all.
A new study from the Mind Research Center in Albuquerque, N. M., uses functional MRI to predict the likelihood of whether a criminal will reoffend after release from prison. Inmates “with relatively low anterior cingulate activity were twice as likely to reoffend than inmates with high-brain activity in this region.”
Society is developing the ability to identify probabilistically ahead of time categories of people who are statistically more likely to commit crimes. In this case, the anterior cingulate cortex, according to the authors, is associated with error processing, conflict monitoring, response selection, and avoidance learning, and they are working on drug therapies to stimulate activity in that area of the brain.
Scholars have expressed serious and varied reservations about overinterpretation of fMRI, most notably that the brain’s ability to rewire itself creates serious limitations in our ability to interpret fMRI activity in a particular area of the brain as being connected with particular species of activity outside the brain. The astounding case of the French civil servant with no brain suggests that the brain is more plastic and more bizarre than we have yet begun to understand.
However, that will not stop policymakers from seeing the glitzy surface of studies such as this, and constructing on top of them a belief that they will be able to reliably detect crime ahead of time. Therefore, our prediction of the week for our ongoing feature “Privacy Concerns of 2020” is that whether the science supports it or not, law enforcement will be using brain scans to identify recidivists ahead of time.
One Catch-22 of criminal justice reform is that law enforcement will always ask for more powers, whether crime is down or crime is up. If crime is up, they need more powers to deal with criminals who have “gotten the upper hand.” If crime is down, they need more powers to keep it from rising again.
Mayor Menino attributes the drop to community policing and neighborhood watch groups, assisted by the more severe winter. It’s almost as if militaristic and confrontational policing is actually less effective at reducing crime than people like to think.
So, we have a simple challenge for Attorney-General Martha Coakley. How far does crime have to fall, before you back off on your biennial demand for vastly expanded powers to take out electronic wiretaps when investigating minor crimes? Lazy, “one crime is too many” thinking is not enough when our Fourth Amendment rights are on the line. We don’t just need better community policing; we need an AG’s office that is willing to look at criminalization as a problem rather than looking at every person drawn into the criminal justice system as a victory for them.