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Pandemic Policing Is Expanding the Use of Surveillance Technology

Law enforcement agencies are already using small drones to enforce stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures.

NYPD officers use face masks as they watch protesters demonstrating against President Trump in front of the Trump International Hotel on April 18, 2020, in New York City.

Part of the Series

Last week’s viral images of New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers handing out masks to crowds of white park-goers while violently attacking and arresting several Black and Latiné residents for not properly distancing themselves has sparked widespread outrage.

A breakdown of arrests and summonses by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office showed that 35 of the 40 people police arrested for violations of social-distancing rules from March 17 through May 4 were Black. The NYPD has dedicated more than 700 officers to police social distancing measures, violations of which are now punishable with a $1,000 fine, even as the pandemic has left millions without work.

Yet instead of calling on the NYPD to scale back or suspend its enforcement of social distancing measures, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for such policing to be done more equitably — something longtime police accountability activists doubt will manifest given the NYPD’s history of racist and aggressive policing of people of color.

“It would be great if the mayor would take a stronger stance because we know that ‘equal’ policing has not and will not happen, so we need more leadership in this area,” says Simone Gamble with the New York City-based police reform group, Justice Committee.

The group is just one of dozens of police reform and civil rights organizations that have been calling on Mayor de Blasio to not only curtail social-distance policing but also to suspend all arrests and summonses for low-level offenses, fire officers who engage in discriminatory and abusive policing, reallocate the NYPD’s budget toward increases in social services and essential community needs, and move unhoused and incarcerated people from the city’s streets and jails into emergency shelters.

The idea of suspending the NYPD’s social-distance enforcement already has widespread support. Even the NYPD’s primary union, the Police Benevolent Association of New York City, agrees that the NYPD’s oversight of social distancing should come to an end, calling it “untenable” in part because it puts officers at risk. The number of officers out sick still hovers at just below 10 percent in the last two weeks after reaching a previous high of 20 percent of the force.

“We know that ‘equal’ policing has not and will not happen.”

While pressure is mounting on de Blasio to halt this kind of enforcement, police reform groups are also finding creative ways to observe and film the police as the city remains under lockdown. Justice Committee organizers are offering online cop-watch trainings specifically tailored to the COVID-19 crisis. The trainings encourage residents to watch and film the police from their windows, fire escapes and roofs, and while they’re out and about on essential errands.

Gamble has been doing cop-watch trainings in the city as part of her work as a leadership member of Justice Committee’s community defense body, and told Truthout she helped craft a new training to be specific to organizers’ needs amid the COVID-19 crisis. She said roughly 75 people attended an online workshop she held from her home in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood last week. Organizers are now hoping to expand and tailor the training to audiences beyond New York.

“We’re not encouraging folks to go out in the streets and cop watch like we normally do,” Gamble says. In addition to advising residents to observe the police from their homes and while on essential errands, she recommends that those engaging in cop-watch activities wear masks and gloves, and maintain at least six feet of distance between themselves and police.

“[The NYPD] is taking this moment to be emboldened in their attacks on our communities and using social distancing enforcement as a cover for that,” Gamble says. That’s why she’s asking cop watchers to be extra mindful and remain “calm, cool and collected” if and when they interact with police amid the pandemic.

“[The NYPD] is taking this moment to be emboldened in their attacks on our communities and using social distancing enforcement as a cover.”

Still, she says, the organization is calling on all New Yorkers to stay vigilant in observing the NYPD, especially as it remains crucial to prevent people from entering jails, where the virus has spread faster than any other part of the city.

Beyond New York City, people are beginning to return to some cities’ streets, parks and businesses as states reopen. The police departments are not only returning to stop-and-frisk style policing of low-level offenses against poor, Black and Brown people, they are also ramping up their use of controversial surveillance technologies that have long been disproportionately deployed against people of color, undocumented people, unhoused individuals, and other vulnerable populations.

Surveillance Technologies Are Expanding

Several law enforcement agencies around the country have already begun using small drones to “broadcast announcements at parks, beaches and homeless camps to enforce stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines.” Privacy and civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about departments’ potential to outfit the drones with “fever detecting” thermal imaging and facial recognition technology that would allow them to detect someone’s body temperature and assist in contact tracing.

Public health experts say contact tracing may be necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19. However, contact tracing can be conducted in a way that the American Civil Liberties Union notes, “remains voluntary” and “protects privacy.” Privacy advocates warn that when put into the hands of machines, capabilities like thermal imaging likely constitute an indiscriminate search, unless serious protective measures are put into place.

In Kentucky, judges have ordered the state’s Department of Corrections to slap ankle monitors outfitted with global positioning devices on residents to ensure compliance with 14-day quarantines. West Virginia has now followed suit, authorizing the use of GEO Group ankle monitors. Other states like Hawaii are still weighing the use of such location-monitoring technology.

Moreover, Reuters reports that law enforcement interest in such technology is growing, as industry executives whose companies supply ankle monitors said they have fielded a number of calls “from state and local governments about repurposing their tools for quarantine enforcement.”

Decarceration activists have long opposed the use of ankle monitors as a so-called criminal legal system reform, pointing out that such technologies bring the prison into the home rather than reducing the scope of the prison system overall. Now law enforcement is expanding the use of ankle monitors to those who haven’t been accused of any crime.

“This idea of being able to incrementally encroach on fundamental civil rights and civil liberties and ultimately human rights — not only is it frightening on its face but also, just like all other forms of violations of constitutional and human rights, will disproportionately impact, if history is any teacher, poor and people of color,” says Flint Taylor, a founding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago who has defended clients in numerous high-profile police brutality cases.

“We have to guard against what will no doubt be racially motivated attempts to further encroach on people’s liberties.”

Police departments across the country, including the NYPD, are already using facial recognition technology developed by Clearview AI to identify people by matching their photos against the company’s own massive database of social media data that has, in some cases, been pulled in violation of platforms’ privacy agreements. Now, The Wall Street Journal reports that Clearview AI was in talks with state agencies to track COVID-19 patients. Clearview AI is financed in part by Peter Thiel, who co-founded the controversial data-mining firm Palantir, which works with global intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies.

Palantir is likewise jumping into the fray, developing its own coronavirus-tracking tool for the Department of Health and Human Services. The platform’s data is already being used to inform the president’s decisions about when and where to reopen parts of the economy. Palantir has previously come under fire from immigrant rights groups like Mijente for its contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help the agency track undocumented people and assist in deportations. Now, activists worry federal immigration police will also deploy the company’s new coronavirus app.

But privacy advocates’ surveillance concerns are not limited to how law enforcement agencies are using controversial technologies, but also how those agencies are sharing sensitive data related to COVID-19 patients. States including Alabama, Florida and Massachusetts, for example, are maintaining lists of positive cases and sharing them with first responders, including police, who could use the virus as a pretext to stop someone with a positive case, or subject them to unwarranted surveillance. Other departments are keeping searchable databases of addresses that “can automatically display a warning when a 911 call originates from one of them,” according to The New Republic.

These are just the technologies that police departments and federal law enforcement agencies are already using or looking to use. Tech companies’ push for surveillance technology as a solution to the COVID-19 crisis is much wider, with many tech platforms exploiting the crisis as an opportunity to “reimagine” aspects of society, including education, health care and the criminal legal system in a pandemic shock doctrine that author and journalist Naomi Klein is calling the “Screen New Deal.”

“We saw what happened after 9/11 in terms of the Patriot Act and all kinds of enhanced policing and surveillance that went on under the guise of safety and the guise of ‘security,’ and now we have a situation … that gives an entrée to law enforcement and the judicial system to take liberties with policing procedures,” Taylor told Truthout. “We have to guard against what will no doubt be racially motivated attempts to further encroach on people’s liberties.”

Reallocating Policing Budgets

More money is on the way to police departments and law enforcement agencies throughout the country. Congress’s third COVID-19 stimulus bill allocates more than $1 billion for the Department of Justice, including $850 million in grants to state and local law enforcement agencies who can use the funds to obtain surveillance technologies.

“New Yorkers are already strapped. We should not have increased interaction with the police while we’re dealing with a highly contagious disease.”

As The New Republic reports, nearly 100 organizations sent a letter to Congress demanding lawmakers prohibit state and local governments that receive federal funds from criminalizing people with COVID-19, including for violations of public health measures like social-distance regulations. They also asked lawmakers to prohibit law enforcement from using those funds for surveillance technologies that monitor residents’ health statuses and limit public health data sharing to public health agencies.

Activists like Justice Committee’s Gamble say police enforcement of low-level offenses remains unnecessary especially amid a steep drop-off in New York’s crime rate as residents shelter in place. The NYPD released its latest crime statistics for the month of April last week, revealing a roughly 28.5 percent drop in overall incidents from April 2019. Crime fell in every borough.

“The fact that there are still police being hired and used during a time of [low crime] just shows that the NYPD is not here to ‘serve and protect,’” Gamble says. “They have a very particular role in very particular communities, and there is not a need for them.”

Crime is also dropping in other major cities including Chicago, where overall offenses were down 30 percent in April. Police accountability activists are pushing local lawmakers to reallocate policing budgets toward social services and essential societal needs like education and health care.

“New Yorkers are already strapped. We are literally dying on the streets, and we are having to deal with the extra, added violence of police,” Gamble told Truthout. “We should not have increased interaction with the police while we’re dealing with a highly contagious disease. It does not make sense to go on with business as usual.”

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