Policing for profit can go wrong in too many ways

July 08, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND |

Hagerstown says that the results of its automated speed cameras are “better than expected.” Great. So let’s quit while we’re ahead.

The dangers and potential for abuse with for-profit justice would seem to be self-evident, but so many communities (and the private corporations that are egging them on) have been finding clever ways of selling the public a bill of goods, that perhaps a review is in order.

It all starts with the children, of course. We put up cameras, just a few, to operate during the school day. Or maybe a little more ... you know, just a little safety overlap, so we can reduce police hours. So who in his right mind could be against speed cameras in a school zone? No one has ever accused me of being in my right mind, so I’ll take that question.

The school-zone cameras are nothing more than a greedy nose under a profitable tent, a way of making the unpalatable palatable to the general public. But it’s difficult to believe that kiddie care is foremost on the mind of the for-profit company that’s reaping a goodly share of the ticket revenue. Rather, its interest is in expanding the speed camera program to allow more money-making cameras throughout the city.

Further, if this is really about reducing police manpower needs, then the chief should be asking the council for staff reductions — which will never happen, even if there is a speed camera on every block.

The city government has tried its best to make these speeding tickets happy tickets. Pay it early and it costs less. No points off your license or anything. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper to get caught by a camera than a cop on the beat. And installation of the cameras is free to the taxpayers. Hot dog!

It feels much as if even City Hall knows this is a sham, so it’s being as nice about it as possible so we will be less likely to complain.

But we should complain, and here’s why. While it’s an extreme case, the Pinkerton detective agency was a pretty good example of what happens when we tie policing to profit. They got results, no question, and a lot of innocent people got broken skulls in the process. Tellingly, one of the main accusations against the Pinkertons was that they would incite labor riots as a means of generating more business for their company. Keep the peace? Hardly, not when unrest is more profitable.

Theoretically, of course, the Pinkertons were human beings who could be confronted by the person who stood accused. That can’t happen with a camera. There’s the photo of your sled with you in it, and that’s considered proof beyond reproach.

So how many electronic devices do you own? And have all of them been glitch-free in the past year? Yet we are supposed to believe that the speed cameras are infallible, even though we know from our own experience that technology fails all the time.

And knowing all we know about corporate America, it’s hard not to think that private companies won’t know exactly how much extra cash they could generate if they calibrated their cameras to nab people exceeding the speed limit by 11 miles an hour instead of 12. And how would we ever know? Even if we suspected it, we would have no chance because in the eyes of the court the camera never lies. And the city would hardly care, because it’s sharing in the loot.

Remember that when money is coming in the door, checks and balances go out the window.

And finally, how far do we want to take for-profit justice? Perhaps the IRS could hire a private firm and turn all of our tax records over to it, allowing computers programmed by big business to hunt down any errors or suspicious entries on our returns. The more money the company can squeeze out of us, the more it gets to keep.

If all this seems to be getting a bit breathy over a handful of speed cameras outside elementary schools, perhaps it is. But a lot of nefarious corporate and government activity has had far more innocent starts. We allow the tentacles of Big Brother and Big Business to tickle our toes at our own risk. Myself, I don’t trust either one, and when they team up, Katy bar the door.

The Framers didn’t come out and say it, but I think they would agree that we have the right not to be watched every second of every day. I don’t believe you should have a clock on you at all times, ready to snap a photo and send a ticket if you suffer a lapse in attention.

Besides, I don’t mind the men and women in blue. And if I’m going to have to pay a ticket, I would at least appreciate a little of the personal service that comes with it.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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