Commonwealth Journal

Columns

November 23, 2013

Police should get used to being under GPS microscope

Somerset — Somebody needs to tell certain police unions that the “privacy-is-dead” reality applies to them as well as the rest of us.

Police departments, with the full support of their unionized workforces, have enthusiastically embraced technology that increases their surveillance powers by orders of magnitude – in many cases for good reason.

Most in the general public support it,  as well. We want them to have all reasonable tools to prevent criminals, many of whom are also tech-savvy, from preying on the rest of us.

But now that surveillance technology is focusing on police – in part to make a department’s operations more efficient, effective and safer, but also to monitor the performance and whereabouts of officers on the job – ironically enough, you start hearing words like “invasive” and “intrusive.”

Most recently, that is the case in Boston. The department, as part of a new contract, is planning to have GPS tracking installed in cruisers, and also to install better video monitoring in stations to record how suspects are treated while in custody.

As one anonymous officer put it, while asserting that none of his colleagues supported it, “Who wants to be followed all over the place?”

Well, yeah. Do they think the rest of us enjoy it?

It is unnerving for office workers to know that their every move online can be tracked by their employers, or that video cameras may monitor the length of their bathroom breaks or how long they spend in the cafeteria. The same is true for many snowplow drivers, who know that management is tracking their vehicles to make sure they are doing their routes instead of sitting at the coffee shop.

Boston’s school bus drivers walked off the job in a wildcat strike recently, in protest of GPS tracking in their vehicles.

But as management and even a few editorial pages have pointed out, Boston's police are just getting in step with a majority of departments around the country – nearly 70 percent, according to the Police Executive Research Forum. It is an irreversible tide because its advantages (that have nothing to do with invading cops’ privacy) are too obvious and substantial to ignore.

It can make crime fighting more effective, by synching statistics on high-crime areas with the GPS devices. It can improve response times to incidents, since commanders will more easily be able to deploy the closest vehicle.

It can improve officer safety - an advantage that some officers acknowledge. One comment in an online police officer forum noted that, “It can mark your last known vehicle location or even tell dispatch where you are if 'it' hits the fan in the general vicinity of your unit and you can't get to your handheld.”

As another put it, “You call for help, everyone can see where you are.”

But, yes, there are clearly disciplinary components to it, as well.

GPS is used to make sure officers are patrolling in their assigned sectors. It tracks their speed: In Louisiana, an officer is in trouble following a recent high-speed crash in which a woman was injured. According to state police, the GPS in his cruiser had logged him speeding more than 700 times during the previous 10 months, sometimes out of his jurisdiction. Just before the crash, the GPS showed he had been doing 100 mph.

According to civil rights organizations like the ACLU of Massachusetts, this kind of monitoring goes too far. “Tracking someone’s location as they go about their day-to-day life is incredibly invasive,” the group said in a statement.

That is a (likely deliberate) distortion of what is going on. The surveillance occurs only during a crucial portion of their “day-to-day life” – their work shift. Once they are off duty, there is no GPS monitoring of their activities.

It may be invasive and it certainly is uncomfortable, but the reality is that employees don’t have a claim to much privacy when they are being paid to work for someone else. Of course, people should not be visually monitored on a bathroom break, or have Human Resources listening in on every casual conversation with a coworker. But management has a right to expect that when you are working when you are paid to be working, not sending personal emails, spending time on social media sites, or taking a nap.

This is especially true of those on the public payroll, who are paid by taxpayers. Police work fewer days, get better pay and vastly better benefits than the average taxpayer who pays for their services. It is more than reasonable to expect that when they are on the clock, they are performing their duties as directed.

Most of the complaints are little more than juvenile whining. One officer claimed that he might get in trouble if he spent 45 minutes talking to a confidential informant in a dark alley. Is he suggesting than management won’t approve of good police work? Or that he can’t trust management not to leak the name of his source?

Conscientious officers should welcome the scrutiny. Among other things, it can protect them from false accusations.

Besides, as law enforcement people are so fond of saying to the rest of us: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net

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