Last month, people around the world marked 1984 author George Orwell’s birthday by placing party hats on surveillance cameras. The book had jumped to the bestseller list after revelations about the breadth of domestic surveillance by the NSA became public. Meanwhile in Saugerties, a second surveillance camera was installed overlooking the corner of Market and Main streets, and a third is planned for Russell St. With questions of liberty and security on the minds of all Americans, we decided to see how Saugertiesians feel about the cameras. In a time when most people are willing to let social media and email applications mine their data in exchange for advertising, and most stores have cameras, is there any reason to feel uptight about public cameras? Is privacy in a public place a contradiction in terms?
Proponents say yes and point out the crimes (mostly vandalism) that have already been solved using the first camera (at Partition and Main). Opponents usually mention “Big Brother” and say they feel surveillance cameras are ineffective at deterring crimes and, like all methods for gathering potentially incriminating, personal or embarrassing evidence, invite abuse. Many we spoke with were unaware of the cameras, and fewer still know the cameras create color, high-resolution video stored in perpetuity and often monitored live by police dispatchers.
Chief of Saugerties Police Joseph Sinagra says he’s given a lot of thought to different uses of technology in police enforcement. He even wrote a paper on surveillance cameras in June for a class he’s taking in the master’s program for public administration at Marist.
Firstly, Sinagra says that although cameras do not work as a deterrent, the ones in Saugerties have assisted with several post-facto arrests. “Some people will commit a crime whether they know there is a camera or not,” he says. Nevertheless, the cameras have assisted in “at least a dozen cases,” resulting in a number of arrests, according to Sinagra.
Secondly, Sinagra says cameras have proven themselves to be quite cost effective. With a price tag of $8,000 per camera, the total cost of three cameras will still be considerably less than a single police officer’s salary for one year. The cameras are funded entirely by parking tickets issued by Saugerties police (as opposed to tax revenue), with each purchase approved by the mayor and Town Board.
Lastly, Sinagra contends that the village’s surveillance cameras are no more invasive than those already in place at stores and ATMs in the area. He notes that the cameras are in a public space, where residents are just as visible to other citizens and police officers as they are to cameras.
Senior dispatcher Vera White says the new camera system has proven itself “a nice tool” in doing her job. White says the live feed has helped her to assess situations as they are happening, which helps her ensure the safety of officers when she sends them to respond. White says that the cameras also “cut the emotion” out of 911 calls, by providing more factual, objective data about a scene than a citizen might. She feels this takes a lot of the guesswork out for dispatchers deciding how to proceed when someone calls the station in a distraught state.
Despite what he calls an “open door policy” and a “collaborative effort” with the community, Chief Sinagra says that no Saugerties residents have yet called the police department to complain about the surveillance cameras.
Part-time Saugerties resident Julia Haines says the cameras are a frightening sign of the times. “We live in a surveillance culture,” she says. “It’s disgusting. It’s become the new normal of the military industrial complex. It’s driven by data, and everyone who uses technology is part of it.”
“I’d rather not give up the privacy,” said Jordan Balsamo, co-owner of the Partition Street Wine Shop.