In August, the Tulsa police department held a press conference about how its new Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs), a controversial piece of surveillance technology, was the policing equivalent of “turning the lights on” for the first time. In Ontario, California, the city put out a press release about how its ALPRs were a “vital resource.” In Madison, South Dakota, local news covered how the city’s expenditure of $30,000 for ALPRs “paid off” twice in two days.
All these stories have two things in common: One, they are all about the same brand of ALPRs, Flock Safety. And two, they’re all reminders of how surveillance technology companies are coaching police behind the scenes on how best to tout their products, right down to pre-writing press releases for the police.
Flock Safety has distributed a Public Information Officer Toolkit, providing “resources and templates for public information officers.” A Flock draft press release states:
The ___ Police Department has solved [CRIME] with the help of their Flock Safety camera system. Flock Safety ALPR cameras help law enforcement investigate crime by providing objective evidence. [CRIME DETAILS AND STORY] ____ Police installed Flock cameras on [DATE] to solve and reduce crime in [CITY].
This Mad Libs of a press release is an advertisement, and one Flock hopes your police departments will distribute so that they can sell more ALPRs.
These kinds of police department press releases, and the news coverage that too often quotes them verbatim, should give you an itchy feeling—the same one you get when you know something is being sold to you by a voice leveraging its public standing. And that’s because police have become salespeople. Brand ambassadors. Advertisers.
The trend has been growing for years. Police, on the hunt for easy solutions to the ebbs and flows of crime, are quick to reassure residents they have found the technological silver bullet. But police must also overcome growing community concerns about surveillance technology, and find ways to justify license plate readers that result in innocent people being pulled from their car by gunpoint, face recognition that too often misidentifies people, and acoustic gunshot detection technology shown by studies to not work well. To do this, police and companies work together to justify the often-shocking expenditures for some of this tech (which these days might be coming from a city’s COVID relief money).
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Flock is not alone. A 2021 yearly report to the SEC filed by ShotSpotter, an acoustic gunshot detection company, reports that their marketing team “leveraged our extremely satisfied and loyal customer base to create a significant set of new ‘success stories’ that show proof of value to prospects…. In the area of public relations, we work closely with many of our customers to help them communicate the success of ShotSpotter to their local media and communities.”
What do police get out of these relationships? For one, they can get easier access to digital evidence. Why knock on doors or get a warrant to access a doorbell camera’s footage, when an officer can send an email request to the company that manages the equipment?
But some police get more than just surveillance out of it. One investigation into Amazon’s surveillance doorbell, Ring, found that Los Angeles Police Department officers were given discount codes—and the more devices purchased with that code, the more free devices were given to the officer. In this situation, how would a person know whether the officer encouraging them to purchase a security camera is making an independent recommendation, or hoping to win increased perks from the company? The LAPD has since launched an investigation into their officers’ relationships with the surveillance company.
In police, surveillance technology companies have found the perfect advertisers. They are omnivorous buyers with deep pockets, they want to show voters they’re being proactive about crime, and the news apparatus all too often takes their word as sacrosanct and their motives as unquestionable.
In his farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the formation of a military-industrial complex, a financial arrangement in which producing the tools of war would be so lucrative that there would be vested interest among manufacturers to ensure the United States always stay on a wartime footing. We must also beware of a police-industrial complex. As people’s fear of crime continues to grow, regardless of the reality of crime in America, companies and police will be all too eager, for profit or reputation, to apply balm to that panic in the form of increasingly expensive surveillance technology.
Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst working on issues of surveillance and policing at the local, state, and federal level. He received a PhD in history at the University of Connecticut where his research focused on the intersection of race, immigration, U.S. imperialism, and policing in New York City. He is the co-editor of The Essential Kerner Commission Report (Liveright, 2021) and his bylines have appeared in NBC News, the Washington Post, Slate, Motherboard, and the Freedom of Information-centered outlet Muckrock. Matthew is an affiliated scholar at University of California, Hastings-School of Law and serves as an editor of “Disciplining the City,” a series on the history of urban policing and incarceration at the Urban History Association’s blog The Metropole. (Photo by Zack Garlitos)
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