I am a strong supporter of law enforcement. From time to time, however, I take issue with how enamored some law enforcement officers and agencies are with technology, sometimes to the point that they allow high-tech gadgetry to determine how they enforce the law. One police department in Florida has taken this tendency to a whole new level.
The Fort Lauderdale Police Department recently rolled out a massive — and massively armored — surveillance truck called “The Peacemaker” (a moniker borrowed from the Colt pistol made famous by Wyatt Earp in the late 19th century). The ridiculously bedecked van roams Ft. Lauderdale’s streets looking for “suspicious” activity. The South Florida Sun Sentinel reports that The Peacemaker, previously an armored bank truck, has been retrofitted with eight cameras and other surveillance gear, allowing it to “gather panoramic footage [of neighborhoods] for up to 700 hours.” The department is so enamored with its newest high-tech toy that it is adding a second to its fleet.
Understandably, some Ft. Lauderdale residents are concerned about the intimidating and privacy-invasive nature of these vehicles. In typical fashion, however, authorities have assured the citizenry that “[p]eople who are abiding by the law should have no problems with this.” George Orwell could not have said it better: Armored surveillance vehicles roaming city streets are there for your own good, and if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.
Not surprisingly, in a world where many people’s fear of terrorists and criminals trumps their concern that government will trample on individual liberties, some residents are welcoming the armored Peeping Toms. Those who do are ignoring the history of government surveillance efforts, which have rarely resulted in meaningful and long-lasting reductions in crime and have often simply shifted crime from the area under surveillance to another area.
To the north, in Marietta, Georgia, local police officials are excited to acquire — with federal dollars — a new, “cutting edge” mobile fingerprint scanner that will give “officers in the field the opportunity to positively identify an individual who is suspected of committing or about to commit a crime.” Basically, when officers scan a suspect’s fingerprints through the device, the device provides them with detailed information about that suspect gleaned from state and federal databases. Authorities say such devices will make officers’ lives “easier” — which begs the question of whether it’s appropriate for police officers to stop a person they “suspect” is “about to commit a crime” and run their fingerprints through all manner of databases.
Perhaps we have travelled too far down the high-tech road to slow the march to 1984 and focus more on solid, time-honored policing — law enforcement that relies on good training and respect for individual liberty rather than expensive technology.
Then again, maybe we ought to at least consider doing so. Last month, the Supreme Court provided at least a glimmer of hope in this regard. The court unanimously ruled that police must secure a judicial warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on a person’s car to monitor them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for weeks on end. It might be a good idea to have law enforcement departments across the country take to heart the message underlying that ruling.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.