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Fighting crime or invasion of privacy?

Cameras, monitoring systems coming to Black communities

Miami Times staff report | 6/23/2014, 11:11 a.m.
In the next few months Miami police expect to have technology in place to zoom in, identify, follow and watch ...

PRIVACY ISSUES

The ACLU of Florida sees it as unnecessary snooping and "indiscriminate continued surveillance" that would be more appropriate at large sites where people gather like the Port of Miami or Miami International Airport. Also, South Florida's two largest law enforcement agencies — Miami-Dade County Police and the Broward County Sheriff's Office — have terminated contracts with ShotSpotter system owner SST because the technology mistook too many random noises for gunfire and didn't help much in real-time crime-fighting.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said similar plans in Tampa and Oakland have failed. He said Tampa dismantled its facial recognition system after ACLU complaints and too many false positives.

"The claim that out in public you have a reduced expectation of privacy is an abused standard by police," Simon said. "A whole range of protocols need to be put in place. It's not being used because of a hope for enhancement of safety, but primarily because Homeland Security is throwing money around." He called giving police feeds from red-light cameras nothing more than "mission creep."

The ShotSpotter system on its own will cost the city $275,000 the first year and about $40,000 in subsequent years.

The technology first came to light in Miami in early 2013. Commissioner Francis Suarez, who was running for mayor at the time, pushed it as an effective tool to fight crime in several of the city's mostly black neighborhoods. Then public discussion on the item was tabled for about a year.

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS

ShotSpotter is a network of sensors and GPS signals on flat boards about the size of a car's air filter that are placed on strategic rooftops. The device is activated when it hears an impulse of noises. If the noise hits three sensors, the technology can pinpoint where the noise is coming from within 10 meters.

It's then relayed to police. SST said it hopes to have agreements with property owners where the sensors would be placed within two months. The machines would cover a four-square-mile area in Miami, meaning the city would be outfitted with 60 to 80 sensors.

When the idea of ShotSpotter was first introduced to Miami in early 2013, Orosa noted the system's flaws, telling commissioners that Miami-Dade police didn't like the system and that the Broward Sheriff's Office gave up on it. Orosa told the elected leaders that ShotSpotter wasn't "going to stop people from shooting each other."

County cops finally abandoned ShotSpotter last November. In 2013, according to Miami-Dade Police Maj. Stephanie Daniels, the system identified more than 1,000 incidents even though there were fewer than 50 confirmed shootings.

Daniels said ShotSpotter helped Northside District police identify where shootings happened but failed to help cops apprehend shooters.

Still, ShotSpotter surfaced again in Miami in April, with commissioners unanimously voting to implement it, and Orosa finally on board after informing commissioners that gunfire tracking system will be more effective after police are able to mount cameras next to the sensors.

The chief's plan is to place between eight and 10 cameras linked to his command center, adjacent to sensors. When a sensor detects gunfire it is relayed back to police in less than 30 seconds. At that point an officer in the command center can maneuver a nearby camera to within 10 meters of where the weapon was fired.

It's the zoom-in capability that worries the ACLU's Simon. He sees the system being abused by cops spending time checking out pretty women — or worse.