The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Z_CNHI News Service

November 22, 2013

Police should get used to being under GPS microscope

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

1
Text Only
Z_CNHI News Service
  • Affirmative action ruling challenges colleges seeking diversity

    The U.S. Supreme Court's support of Michigan's ban on race-based affirmative action in university admissions may spur colleges to find new ways to achieve diversity without using racial preferences.

    April 23, 2014

  • A 'wearable robot' helps her walk again

    Science is about facts, numbers, laws and formulas. To be really good at it, you need to spend a lot of time in school. But science is also about something more: dreaming big and helping people.

    April 23, 2014

  • Cuba is running out of condoms

    The newest item on Cuba's list of dwindling commodities is condoms, which are now reportedly in short supply. In response, the Cuban government has approved the sale of expired condoms.

    April 23, 2014

  • The waffle taco's biggest enemy isn't McDonald's. It's consumer habits.

    Gesturing to Taco Bell, Thompson said McDonald's had "not seen an impact relative to the most recent competitor that entered the [breakfast] space," and that new competition would only make McDonald's pursue breakfast more aggressively.

    April 23, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 4.42.47 PM.png VIDEO: Leopard attacks crowd in India

    A leopard caused panic in the city of Chandrapur when it sprung from the roof of a house and charged at rescue workers.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • The top 12 government programs ever

    Which federal programs and policies succeed in being cost-effective and targeting those who need them most? These two tests are obvious: After all, why would we spend taxpayers' money on a program that isn't worth what it costs or helps those who do not need help?

    April 22, 2014

  • In cuffs... 'Warlock' in West Virginia accused of sexual assault

    Police in West Virginia say a man claiming to be a “warlock” used promises of magical spells to lure children into committing sexual acts with him.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Basketball stars may linger on campus a while longer

    The NBA seems serious about raising its minimum age, which could signal the end of the one-and-done era in college basketball.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Cats outsmart the researchers

    I knew a lot had been written about dogs, and I assumed there must be at least a handful of studies on cats. But after weeks of scouring the scientific world for someone - anyone - who studied how cats think, all I was left with was this statement, laughed over the phone to me by one of the world's top animal cognition experts, a Hungarian scientist named Ádám Miklósi.

    April 22, 2014

  • McCain 1 House Republicans are more active on Twitter than Democrats

    Your representative in the House is almost certainly on Twitter. Your senator definitely is. But how are they using the social network? Are Democrats more active than Republicans, or vice versa? Who has the most followers on the Hill?

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Do your genes make you procrastinate?

    Procrastinators, in my experience, like nothing better than explaining away their procrastination: General busyness, fear of failure, and simple laziness are just a handful of the excuses and theories often tossed around. Now researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have added another option to the list: genetics.

    April 21, 2014

  • Do White Castle prices tell us anything about the minimum wage?

    The paper looked at how many delicious steamed sliders the minimum wage has been able to purchase over time. The point is that as it notes, in 1981, the $3.35 minimum could buy a whole dozen. Today, at $7.25, it could purchase just 10.

    April 21, 2014

  • VIDEO: Moose charges snowmobile, flees after warning shot

    While snowmobiling in New England, Bob and Janis Powell of Maine were charged by a moose and caught the entire attack on camera.

    April 21, 2014

  • Can Hillary Clinton rock the cradle and the world?

    What's most interesting to contemplate is the effect becoming a grandmother will have on Hillary's ambition. It's one of life's unfairnesses that a woman's peak career years often coincide with her peak childbearing years.

    April 21, 2014

  • Screen shot 2014-04-18 at 4.44.15 PM.png Paint, doodle and sketch: 3 apps for art lovers

    In the absence of a palette of watercolors and a sketchpad, these three apps can fill in as your art supplies of choice.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo