Almost everyone is a criminal. If you have ever smoked marijuana, consumed alcohol underage or walked on railroad tracks, you are guilty of a misdemeanor. You would most likely be in prison right now if you were convicted for every single offense you ever committed.
We want the police to use their authority to punish people who injure others, however, they often use their power to harass and imprison those who have not harmed anyone. Many think that the police only enforce the law, and that anyone who goes to prison is getting what they deserve. But this is not always the case. We are all criminals, but those of us who are not in a targeted group can, for the most part, ignore this. The police rely on individual complaints and don’t always enforce the law in a just manner. If every crime were prosecuted, courts and prisons would be overflowing with prisoners. If this were the case, politicians and their supporters would be caught in the system, making it necessary to reform laws and restrict police authority.
To avoid criticism, police officers often only arrest those who they can get away with targeting. Officers respond to valid complaints, but they also harass homeless people, radical political groups and religious groups who have little political power. The process of choosing whom to watch and arrest is largely invisible to the public. Police departments, such as the University of Michigan’s Department of Public Safety (DPS), have internal policies and individual officers that can choose when to arrest people or let them off with warnings.
Surveillance cameras make this process even more secretive and powerful. With cameras readily available, the police do not need citizens’ complaints to justify who they choose to target. Video surveillance is not limited by the size of a police staff, and officers are held less accountable by the public, when they use surveillance cameras. In order to promote a just community that protects peoples’ civil liberties and rights, the people need a say in police authority, and installing more surveillance cameras does just the opposite.
University Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper and DPS leaders have suggested installing more cameras because of the recent increase in larcenies. Administrators must not agree to this and can support this argument with evidence from around the world showing that surveillance cameras are often ineffective in preventing crime. Regardless of such data, some students will support the plan and many will remain apathetic because they do not think the police will be interested in targeting them. While these students may be right, we must not endanger the civil liberties of those whom the police are likely to target.
We should only accept increased police surveillance if it will bring us great benefits along with this cost. While DPS has a unique duty to promote campus safety, it must not be given free rein to unnecessarily control our civil liberties. It is critical that DPS and University administrators look carefully at the potential costs of surveillance cameras on campus. Slightly reducing the chance that our laptops are stolen is not a good enough reason to give up what little oversight we have over our campus police.
Bennett Stein and William Leaf are members of the ACLU-UM Undergraduate chapter.