Granting unfettered access to every citizen in Newark, New Jersey and encouraging them to report what they perceive as criminal behavior is not some ill-advised vision of the future of policing. It’s here, and now. All one needs is a Google, Facebook, Twitter, or email account, and they too can become part of Newark’s ‘Citizen Virtual Patrol’.
What could possibly go wrong?
One can’t blame advocates of citizen policing completely. Newark is, after all, a city that has been besieged by exorbitant rates of crime since as far back as residents can remember. On Neighborhood Scout’s crime index, which ranks cities on a scale of 100 (100 being the safest), Newark comes in at a 15, a figure that could compel some to purchase a fresh suit of body armor before walking down a poorly lit street after dusk. Their rate of nearly 10 violent crimes per 1,000 residents is far above the state’s average of 2.45.
Some prominent scholarly papers focusing on Newark specifically include "Policy and Intervention Considerations of a Network Analysis of Street Gangs", “Bus Stops and Crime: Do Bus Stops Increase Crime Opportunities in Local Neighborhoods?”, and “Exploring Fear of Crime Among Elderly Urban Females: An Application of Focus and Intensive Interview Techniques”. The list goes on, and on.
So, to repeat, you’d be forgiven for thinking anything – even allowing nosy Margaret whose advanced age has already made snooping on the locals a favored activity access to the city’s flotilla of security cameras – might be worthwhile as an attempt to decrease Newark’s rampant crime.
But you’d also be forgiven if the notion of George Zimmerman types watching you through eyes in the sky originally intended for use by law enforcement and select bureaucrats doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy. You’d be within your rights to think a Virtual Citizen Patrol with no apparent qualifications or oversight sounds a bit too like Big Brother or Soviet-era Russian society, where neighbors were encouraged to spy on each other for the state, for your liking.
But your feelings be damned, the Virtual Citizen Patrol has arrived, and it may be spreading to your crime-riddled metropolis next.
Bad boys, bad boys, what’cha gonna do? What’cha gonna do when your neighbor calls the cops because you were lingering a bit too long after going to the corner store?
Facing a police shortage and a scourge of both violent and non-violent crime trending in the wrong direction, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has, in the past, appealed to the state for some kind of reinforcements. In 2010, there were 1,131 uniformed police officers employed by the city of Newark. By 2015, the number had dropped to 986 officers. Though 2017’s class of police academy recruits numbered 200, the largest class in ten years, crime has continued to plague the city, and Baraka is turning away from the state and to the citizens of Newark as law enforcement eyeball reserves.
But the Citizen Virtual Patrol seems so obviously flawed, even when it is described by the mayor himself, that one can’t help but forebode the program ending with the police more strained than they already are, barraged by the tips of citizens empowered to report even the tricks their minds play on them. Unveiled at the end of April, here’s how Mayor Baraka describes the role of the citizens within their Patrol.
“They get an opportunity to look at what’s going on in their neighborhood,” Baraka said. “A suspicious car, individuals that are there who shouldn’t be there, a robbery that may have taken place, folks that are out on the corner selling drugs, anything of that nature.”
Let us just consider what, exactly, is a “suspicious car”. A rusty car? A beat-up car? A panel van? A Honda Accord?
Apparently, Mayor Baraka is prepared to let the fine citizens of Newark decide for themselves. Hopefully, they will be afforded some level of training, but let’s be honest, they’re never going to be ready to play the role of a cop spotting potential criminal activity. That’s why they’re mere citizens.
But, now they are cops. Citizens cops. Or, watchdogs, or something.
‘The public can log onto a Newark Police Department website and access real-time, high-definition video from a network of 62 surveillance cameras strategically placed at “hotspots” throughout the city. If civilians witness a crime taking place or observe questionable behavior, they can immediately act upon the activity by calling 911, where they may remain anonymous.’
Due to the program, the number of cameras will be approximately doubling in the near future.
Regardless of what you want to consider the Citizen Virtual Patrol, many of whom surely mean well and to make a difference in their neighborhoods, they aren’t cops. But that surely won’t stop a fair percentage of them with inexplicable amounts of time on their hands and temperaments that simply cannot be predetermined by any equivalent like a police academy from acting like policemen.
Cops, citizens, vigilantes, well-wishing good Samaritans. Just what the Citizen Virtual Patrollers are may not matter. What will matter to most is that unchecked citizens are watching. Critics have pointed out that the program could just as well cut the other way, letting malevolent actors know what locations are ripe for robbing.
“If someone were to watch the video feeds and see someone stepping out of their house with suitcases, well they can bet that that person is going to be away for a couple of days and that creates a situation ripe for burglary,” (Daily Wire)
It’s a legitimate concern, along with the more general concern that somebody, anybody, is almost certainly watching you at a given time. The existence of this program speaks volumes in and of itself.
That the city of Newark has to resort to this level of unpaid outsourcing for crime stopping is perhaps the most damning indictment on the city itself that could be leveled. It’s an admission of failure of the city to do its job in protecting its citizens.
So now, the citizens are being asked to police themselves.
Mayor Baraka once said “When I become mayor, we all become mayor.”
Perhaps what he meant was, “When I become mayor, you all become policemen”.