More musings on civil liberties

Post by Eric Mang in ,

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smile, you're under arrest!
Are we putting a happy face on infringements on our human rights?

Many years ago, I was sitting in my bedroom, quietly doing my homework, plugged into headphones letting the strains of a Sibelius symphony wash over me. My back was to my door but I heard someone tromp in. Only my kid brother tromped and I knew, as we shared a room, that he was reading in bed. I turned around and saw a burly man standing in my bedroom. I pulled my headphones off and managed a weak “hi”. He smiled and flashed a badge.

My mom hurried in after him and explained that the police were in our apartment with a search warrant. I walked out of my bedroom and five plainclothes cops were sniffing around our pad asking us questions. Seems someone saw one of my mom’s semi-exotic plants in our front window, thought it to be marijuana, and called the police. I assume no one bothered with that “reasonable and probable” nuisance (establishing reasonable grounds is more than a weak suspicion and cops can’t go on “fishing expeditions”), got a warrant and came a-knocking.

The cops muttered a few apologies, said they were mistaken and left. My mom called a criminal lawyer friend of ours. He was outraged. So incensed that the next day he phoned our local police division. The warrant wasn’t in their records. Fascinating.

I chatted about this with my grandfather. He was a fairly law-and-order type who spent 43 years in the army. He said that he’d have no problem with police entering his home, even without a search warrant, because he had nothing to hide. This affront to my sense of civil liberties and social justice caused me to explode. Of course he had never been on the receiving end of injustice. Unlike one of my best friends, my grandfather was never arbitrarily detained by the police because of the colour of his skin.

At the risk of harping further on the perils and lack of evidence supporting surveillance cameras or closed-circuit TVs (CCTVs), the issue has reared its ugly surveying digital eye once again in Toronto.

Following some gang shootings in the west end, Toronto’s normally sensible and intelligent police chief, Bill Blair, wants to have CCTVs installed in the afflicted neighbourhoods.

Fortunately, critics of Blair’s recommendation are asking for evidence that CCTVs deter crime. I know that people in the Jane/Dundas and Weston/Lawrence neighbourhoods are scared. I used to live near Jane/Dundas and was awoken occasionally with the “pop, pop, pop” of a handgun sounding in the distance, but will CCTVs deter crime?

We are so slow and usually unable to sensibly address the systemic causes of crime and gang violence. Instead we want quick fixes; even if they imperil civil liberties, privacy, and have no evidence as to whether they diminish crime.

Conservative governments, at least today’s batch of neo-cons (former Progressive Conservative governments such as Bill Davis’ embarked on some noble social programs), keep snipping away at the social safety net, in a social Darwinian every man for himself approach to life (Darwin, incidentally, was horrified to see his theory of natural selection be applied to cutthroat capitalism), where the wealthy eventually flee to gated communities in the ‘burbs, leaving the inner city a burnt out Mad Max wasteland.

And for those who think there is no privacy in public spaces (e.g. on sidewalks, in parks), then I imagine you would feel right at home in a totalitarian society, where secret police monitor your movements and then have the power to make you disappear.

As to whether the CCTVs actually deter crime (which they don’t appear to according to this UK study), Chief Blair said that “suspects see their picture on television and they know the jig is up…and turn themselves in.”

So Blair doesn’t say if CCTVs actually prevent crime, only that after the crime has been committed, we can occasionally catch the bad guy red-handed. There is another way to determine if someone is guilty of a crime: it’s called a court of law.

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