Privacy SOS

Special security events leave a lasting mark

It's now pretty well established: if your city plays host to a major "National Special Security Event" like a major party convention or global summit, your police department will probably gain broad new powers to restrict or intimidate dissent and tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of surveillance equipment for their troubles. It usually doesn't matter if the locals don't want the police to have these new powers, or if they object to the flooding of their city with advanced, military grade weapons and surveillance. (Oftentimes the residents aren't even consulted about these changes, though sometimes city councils are involved, as is the case in Tampa Bay.)

You get a major event; you get a quasi-police state — and while the police say the new powers, restrictions on speech and technologies are aimed at keeping the peace or scaring off terrorists during the festivities, those powers and fancy tools usually stick around long after the balloons have dropped and the last party delegates have checked out of their hotels. Overkill comes for what's supposed to be a short vacation, but never leaves.

That's what happened in Boston when the Democratic National Convention was here back in 2004; in New York City that year for the RNC; in the Twin Cities (see video below) and Denver in 2008; in Chicago in May 2012 for NATO; and it is happening now in Tampa Bay and Charlotte as those cities prepare to host the party conventions for 2012. This is a short list; there are plenty of other examples.

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In every case, police got new toys and new powers. Here in Boston, police announced in advance of the 2004 DNC that they would begin random searches on public transit. Those random bag checks are still in effect, 8 years later.

The city also received tens of millions of dollars from the federal government for the expansion and centralization of extensive video surveillance throughout the city, with a headquarters based at the Federal Protective Services office at the JFK Federal Building near Government Center.

After the DNC left town, the integrated camera network stayed put, and federal agents have had direct access to the hundreds of government cameras throughout the city ever since. The system laid down in 2004 has been expanded in subsequent years, tying in networks from cities surrounding Boston, as well:

In Boston this has been done with virtually no public debate or participation, though residents of neighboring towns Brookline and Cambridge took matters into their own hands and passed resolutions against the cameras.

What can you do if a major event is coming to your city? Get in touch with your local city council to find out if there will be hearings or votes on enhanced police powers or acceptance of federal funds for surveillance cameras. Raise a stink in the local press through letters to the editor or op-eds. Start a community group to focus on police democracy and technology acquisitions at the local level.

The city council in Tampa Bay just approved a $50 million federal grant for loads of new surveillance cameras in that city in advance of the RNC this summer, and officials say they will raise the issue at a public forum after the convention to determine whether or not to keep the cameras. That's great.

The more the public is involved in public safety and democracy issues before and after these major events, the better. Given our post-9/11 climate of fear and security-technology mania, a dystopian scenario of total control isn't far off — in fact it is playing out in London right now in advance of the Olympics — so we must be vigilant. 

For more information about how to take action against surveillance and enhanced police powers at the local level, get in touch.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.