Computing Applications Electronic frontier

True Blue and Vigilante, Too

Does encouraging citizens to work with law enforcement to fight crime have the potential for abuse?
  1. Introduction
  2. The Digital Back Fence
  3. On the Radar Screen
  4. The Soul of the Spy
  5. Author

When wrong-minded policy decisions collide on the national stage my palms start to sweat, my wife cautions me about hurling a blistering string of profanities at the television when the kids are within earshot, and the dog goes missing for days.

Two policy decisions that have come together in a kind of "civil rights perfect storm" are Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision to draft volunteer members of America’s "Neighborhood Watch" program as special agents in the War On Terrorism, and an increasing number of cities handing out radar guns to civilians in hopes of enlisting them to help thwart that most heinous of criminals: the common speeder.

There is no easy way to say this: from here on out it gets ugly. Not the kind of garden variety, café socialism ugly. I’m talking down in your gut, Heartland-of-America ugly.

We’re setting ourselves up to become a nation of pseudo spies spun from the threads of tens of thousands of local networks of rat squads, each waiting and watching for "suspect behavior" of neighbors and friends, each blabbing to the local sheriff as if trading gossip under the hair dryer at the beauty shop or coughing up a hot stock tip in an Internet chat room. And no doubt just as reliable.

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The Digital Back Fence

"In the great tradition of American volunteerism, through the Neighborhood Watch program we will weave a seamless web of prevention of terrorism that brings together citizens and law enforcement," said Ashcroft during a March 2002 news conference to announce what is essentially the "At Home Spy Network." Worse: he said this with a straight face, in spite of the fact that Ed McMahon—the Johnny Carson sidekick-cum-Neighborhood Watch spokesperson—appeared alongside him to lend, ahem, credibility to the proposal.

"Your country has never needed you more," Ashcroft said. At that point, I cracked up and drew a glaring stare from a couple of FBI agents who were busy holding up the walls.

The program is intended to "increase citizen engagement," said Jim Copple, head of the National Crime Prevention Council, who oversees the Neighborhood Watch council, during a CNN interview shortly after Ashcroft announced the plan. (Apparently Copple would have some say in the hiring of McMahon as spokesperson, so factor that into any reading of his comments.)

Copple insists the plan isn’t about profiling people but rather "caring for our neighbors, watching out for our neighbors, and looking for suspicious behavior."

For all this effort the government is ponying up $2 million to help double the number of Watch programs.

"Basically what we are asking citizens to do," Copple said on CNN, "if they hear conversations or see behavior or actions consonant with terrorist activity or violence, or crime in their local communities, they should report that to local law enforcement."

Better to call the program the "New Economy Posse," the spawn of a hysteria played out from a no less august stage than the Oval Office, bred in the emotional aftermath of 9/11.

Ashcroft’s plan creates a kind of plastic police force with no training and born of a nascent vigilantism. As such, these de facto detectives become de facto dangerous. They become a danger to themselves and the citizen perps they’re hoping to nail.

"It has a Cold War, McCarthy-era feel to it," Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union said of the plan. "I can’t imagine anything being more prone to abuse."

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On the Radar Screen

Arming citizens with radar guns is apparently becoming a trend. In Maine, Florida, Pennsylvania, and California, literally from sea-to-shining-sea, civilians are taking over the speed watch from the local police.

Walkable Communities, an advocacy group, estimates more than 100 cities in the U.S. are lending radar guns to citizens, though no accurate numbers are kept.

In a sure sign of success, the trend has jumped the pond. London plans to arm its citizens with radar guns. Indeed, the metropolitan police in London came up with the plan to enlist "neighborhood wardens" who would "act as the eyes and ears of the police," according to a leaked Home Office report, well before Ashcroft unveiled his own plan.

This doesn’t really crack down on speeders, it begins to desensitize the populace to working collaboratively with law enforcement. Psychologically it’s easier to accept a police state if you consider yourself "an insider" of that state. Or as George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Don’t get me wrong: cooperating with the police isn’t a bad thing at all. But there is a huge difference in cooperating with the police and collaborating with them, especially when it’s your neighbors you’re spying on.

Power gets abused. Is that nippy little poodle three houses down using your finely manicured lawn as a dumping ground again? Well, you’ll show his owner. You just got a brand new radar gun!

"But that’s so petty," you say. Have you even glanced at that section in your local newspaper that recounts in short, sharp sterile prose who was arrested the night before and why? The word "petty" doesn’t begin to describe why we humans do things to other members of our tribe.

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The Soul of the Spy

What’s next? From radar guns to video cameras? Citizens start pulling all-night surveillance shifts outside some roadhouse bar on the edge of town waiting to catch adulterers? Maybe they’ll start watching Planned Parenthood clinics to make sure your teenage daughter isn’t slipping in anonymously for, um, counseling. Then what? The scenarios are endless.

What ever happened to all those untold billions in "black budget" money we’re spending to fund the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, U.S. Customs, and the DEA?

As a nation we banked the fires of democracy by enabling these agencies with the best and brightest technology money could buy, not to mention unknown human resources. And it’s all failed so miserably that the U.S. Attorney General now wants, natch, needs my Aunt Ester and Uncle Stan to help fight terrorism?

I don’t buy it. I hope and pray the American public isn’t buying it.

Vigilance is close to a virtue; vigilance is the subtext of our Constitution. But so is tolerance. Equipping civilians with radar guns and enlisting them as a part of the U.S. home security network breeds an atmosphere of hypervigilance in which tolerance is traded for the profane poison of suspicion.

The world got ugly real quick on 9/11. Now it’s up to each of us to keep it from getting uglier. Want to keep a close eye on your neighbors? Refuse the radar gun, shun the false security of Neighborhood Watch, and just invite your neighbors over for a Saturday barbecue.

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