Skycop: Big idea or big brother?

Saturday, September 16, 2017

“It’s dangerous when people are willing to give up their privacy,” Noam Chomsky.

“Big Brother is watching you,” George Orwell.

Skycop has been paraded out by the Blytheville city administration in a manner suggesting that our salvation has arrived and by simply installing these remote cameras, all our crime problems will be vanquished (queue the epic hero music). But is it really the “end all be all” of law enforcement…complex problems are seldom solved with something as small as installing cameras (even if they flash blue lights)!

Mobile Skycop units (built upon a trailer, with its own power supply) cost approximately $50,000 each and the smaller, less expensive ones that are affixed to the top of power poles, range from $5,400 and up (depending on the bells and whistles).

First, my primary concern is that of privacy. Greg Knuckles of Skycop said the license plate recognition could be used by local police to create a “hot list” which will alert them every time that the license plate of a specific person (of their choice) is recorded. This, when used properly, can alert police to the whereabouts of key persons under investigation, even if they haven’t been indicted. But, not requiring a warrant, it can also be used to track innocent people for any number of nefarious reasons. Let’s say that a bad officer wished to terrorize, torment or harass someone…just put them on the hotlist and you know where they are and when.

What if a bad police officer wants to have an illicit affair with someone’s spouse? Coming from Manila I know that has never happened before! What if someone offends the department, perhaps writing an unfavorable column in the local newspaper…should they still have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they go out?

Businesses that employ the use of security cameras are required to alert you. How many people will never know that they are being observed, logged and recorded just by passing one of these Skycop units? And just because federal agencies have done it, doesn’t mean it is okay in Blytheville.

Will it do the job? What happens if someone attacks a camera? No cameras are sabotage proof! What about during power failures (applies to the smaller units)? What about the perpetual monthly monitoring fees by Skycop after the first year?

Many have complained that the mayor’s Public Safety Tax was reluctantly passed for pay raises and justice center renovation – not for Skycop, “toys or bells and whistles.”

Nothing in the mayor’s or councilmember’s statements, meeting minutes, ordinances or resolutions, campaign materials, signs or public hearings before the election ever mentioned using Public Safety Tax money to purchase expensive Skycop units. In fact, voters passed the tax on May 9, but Skycop was never officially mentioned until May 11, 2017, when Mayor Sanders made a passing reference to it in our story, “Leaders plan new justice center” published on May 13. Why so late? Coincidence?

The mayor and Blytheville Chief Financial Officer John Callens did say that it was to be used for “expenses needed in public safety that are approved by the city council” and that “public safety includes police, fire, code enforcement and animal control.”

So with a definition so broad that you can drive a number of trucks through it, any darned thing they want to label as “public safety” can fall under that. On November 22, 2016, in response to questioning by the CN after Mayor Sanders pitched his Public Safety Tax to the Blytheville Chamber of Commerce during their monthly luncheon, “Blytheville Chief Financial Officer John Callens said, ‘There is no smoke and mirrors associated with this tax. It will be used 100 percent for additional salaries and for increases in their salaries and if there are any residuals from any year, that will be used for one-time expense needed in public safety that are approved by the city council such as [tearing down] dilapidated houses and the new fire station.’”

However, 12 days later, Mayor James Sanders and three members of the Blytheville City Council held a public hearing at the former A.A.M.O.D. Building before approximately 25 people – about half of whom were employed in some way by the city – to pitch the tax, stretched what the new tax could be used on when he said, “…it is a tax for public safety to subsidize what we need in the police, fire, code and animal control departments.”

In fact, the actual ballot question said that the tax would be used for the “’renovation, expansion, and equipping of the old National Guard Armory for use as a Justice Center and any necessary parking, landscaping, drainage, lighting, street and utility improvements,’ which is collectively referred to as the ‘Justice Center Improvements’ and also ‘(a) to fund public safety purposes…’”

Could the administration say that a new truck meets that threshold? Sure. Another new building? Sure. A truckload of skittles to “win the hearts and minds of children toward police?” Sure. Radars, bulletproof vests, guns…sure! A junket trip to Daytona Beach for a “convention?” Sure. Just about anything could work.

Yeah, but they wouldn’t do that you say? Hmmm. Some even worry that it is an attempt to eliminate the need for actual “boots on the ground” police officers. It better not be.