When it came to someone who could assuage anxietites over a new surveillance camera pilot project, the Toronto Police chose wisely. When I ask Sgt. Mark Barkley whether he thinks cameras actually deter crime, he responds, "We might look at an area where they were used and say, 'Crime went down,' Well, yeah - three new factories opened up. We have to put it in perspective."
This cautious tone is reassuring, since come April 15 automated cameras are slated to appear in a selection of high-crime areas for a one-year trial, an expansion of the provincially funded pilot that began with three cameras on downtown Yonge during the holiday season.
There are no Big Brother aspirations here, and Barkley emphasizes that the cameras "are not a panacea."
That's not to say, though, that the goals of this project are humble. Nor do they even always seem complementary: "an increased fear of detection" and "an increased feeling of safety" aren't exactly the same thing.
Many of the participants in the series of consultations across the city hosted by police over the last month have the same problem.
Members of the Toronto Public Space Committee, to no one's surprise, speak in opposition. "What we really need are well-designed, usable public spaces and more community policing," says campaigner Daniel Quinn in a press release. During question periods, TPSC members ask why the contraptions are needed when crime rates are going down.
Barkley points out there are certain areas that have nonetheless resisted the trend. "It might be one or two streets," he said. "Why are they out of sync?"
But not everyone is so sure that cameras can answer that question. "Cameras fly in the face of community policing," says one deputant at a meeting at the Delta Chelsea Hotel on February 8. "This will distance the police from the communities."
Indeed, a beat cop can converse, receive the unconscious signals that are a part of any interaction and exercise discretion. All a camera can do is record and reduce a community to a sketchy-looking frame.
On the other hand, the cameras, whose footage will only be downloaded if a crime is reported, could be useful in reclaiming neighbourhoods, points out Angela Kinnear of Councillor Adam Vaughan's office, expressing qualified support for a limited program. People coming to the club district on weekends, she says, double the population of the ward. "Regardless of what patterns may go on the rest of the week, those people have no ties to the community."
Councillor Pam McConnell, vice-chair of the Police Services Board, says cameras are useful in areas "that are not in the purview of private space or public space." Barkley raises a similar issue when he says officers will be looking at whether cameras foster a "revitalization" of public spaces.
Fine points, but perhaps better left to planning or economic development departments.
Yes, cameras could potentially prime those processes but they could also skew them from their natural course; "revitalization" is a touchy word. To some it means community control, while to others it means clearing out the poor folk. Police - and the Downtown Yonge BIA, the biggest camera supporter - have tended historically to favour the latter.
And what, exactly, do we mean by public space? Is a public school public space? Sure. All right, but does the answer change if it means cameras can watch kids during recess?
The most common justification for the program is that we're all recorded numerous times a day anyway - in banks, in restaurants. But if this program becomes permanent, what new interventions will it be used to justify 20 years down the road?
Indeed, the truly important questions may be more abstract than crime statistics. What, for instance, are the differences between putting a camera on Yonge Street and in a quiet residential neighbourhood - technically public space - in the suburbs? Both are planned.
What does it mean that police would likely actively monitor the downtown cameras during demonstrations, as Superintendent Kim Derry suggests they might? You could say it's no different from the portable cameras they use at protests, but has there been a proper debate on the ethics of that?
But one might also wonder whether there isn't a psychological shift: the space you claim gaining the ability to rebuff you, to find you suspect.
Never mind for now the right to privacy - what of the more esoteric right to non-involvement? According to Superintendent Jeff McGuire, cameras will help police identify witnesses. People have all sorts of reasons to not involve themselves in criminal proceedings. They may have ethical objections, they may be afraid. At a time when voluntary witnesses are few because of an acknowledged distrust of police, would this really be a remedy?
But even if all such concerns prove groundless, is that the end of the debate? If crime could be reduced by putting RFID anklets on everyone - and it probably could - then would we do it?
A 15-camera project at $2 million means a tally of over $133,000 per camera in this provincially mandated and funded affair. In other words, one instrument of watchfulness is worth a year of rent supplements for between 10 and 20 people, or a year of child care subsidies for over 100 kids. The cost of two robotic eyes, spent over 12 months, could fund staff for a large park. The tag on the entire pilot is equivalent to the annual operating budget for two community centres or the purchase of two new low-floor, double-length LRV streetcars.
You see where I'm going with this. But please, crunch your own numbers. As far as I know no one's looking over your shoulder.