By Emily Rasmussen
On a recent afternoon, a group of men stand smoking cigarettes and laughing outside the entrance to Eddie’s Junior Market, on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Junipero Avenue in Long Beach. Two cameras silently watch overhead.
Manager Boris Melendez stands behind the cash register, separated from his customers by a thick layer of bulletproof glass. He says the store has 19 cameras, all of which are connected to the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD).
“I know sometimes I’m being watched by my owner or maybe even the police. But I’ve just learned to ignore that the cameras are here,” Melendez said. “If you have nothing to hide, then privacy is something you shouldn’t be worried about.”
It’s that kind of attitude that worries Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.
“Most people don’t think they are criminals, but once you’re in the government’s crosshairs, with surveillance they will probably find some type of law you are breaking,” Stanley said.
Eddie’s Junior is one of over 100 Long Beach businesses equipped with cameras connected to the LBPD. In 2012, the department had access to just over 400 cameras, according to Long Beach Legislation. Today that number has grown to more than 750, all of which can be monitored in real-time.
And Long Beach is no outlier when it comes to surveillance. California spent more than $18 million in 2014 to increase surveillance in 118 cities and counties statewide. Long Beach has spent more than $1.6 million in 2012, according to the ACLU.
The LBPD uses the Long Beach Common Operating Picture (LBCOP) system to access cameras. The system allows businesses and residents to voluntarily connect their privately owned cameras to the same network as the city-owned surveillance cameras.
Police and local businesses view the system as part of crime prevention efforts, though data show that the stepped up surveillance has led to only a minor drop in the city’s crime rate, with violent crime dipping only .04 percent in 2014 and overall crime rising this year.
Citing security reasons, the LBPD declined to comment on the exact number and location of the cameras it accesses, though a spokesperson noted they are concentrated in business and entertainment districts, as well as parks and city facilities.
Long Beach is one of the 61 cities in California with some form of government or police surveillance, according to the ACLU. Only three of these cities, however, have public policies regulating police surveillance. Long Beach is not on that list.
“At the ACLU, we tilt towards public privacy and freedom,” says Stanley. “Some think police freedom is important, but how can we make these types of decisions if the police aren’t being transparent?”
Stanley, a self-described “futurist,” studies new technologies and the effects they have on civil liberties. He says traditionally, police would ask to view footage from private camera owners after a crime had taken place. For example, police in Boston used surveillance cameras to identify the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, explained Stanley.
He adds that although every camera connected to the LBCOP might not be monitored 24 hours a day, there is no law that prevents police from doing so.
“When these private camera owners voluntarily allow police to monitor their feeds,” says Stanley, “it becomes an opportunity for personal or political abuse.”
Examples of this include one high profile case involving an agent with the National Security Administration who was found to have been using camera feeds to follow love interests, according to the Washington Post.
And while Stanley says there are as yet no known cases of these kinds of abuses in Long Beach, it is impossible to rule them out completely without the kind of transparency that he and others are calling for.
Despite the privacy concerns, for some the cameras bring a welcome sense of security.
“Cameras make it harder to lie about what you’ve done, for criminals and the police,” says Long Beach resident Elizabeth Hendrix.
On nights when she can’t get into one of the local shelters, Hendrix sleeps on the streets around Pacific Coast Highway and Pacific Avenue. The area has seen a recent spike in crime. In response, the city is planning to install 18 new cameras near Washington Middle School, at a cost of $100,000, according to ABC7.
The additional cameras would bring the total number of city owned cameras to more than 100.
Hendrix says privacy is important, but for her and others living on the streets safety is a greater concern.
The ACLU, meanwhile, is encouraging communities to engage with local government in decisions about surveillance spending and privacy concerns.
“If you think about it more deeply, it’s not just about hiding things,” Stanley says. “It’s about being able to speak freely and not having to look behind your shoulder every second.”