Just before the last weekend of Mayor Joe Riley’s 40 years in office and that very important college football game, the City of Charleston engaged in what serious journalists sometimes call a Friday news dump. This happens when you have to make something public knowledge, but you don’t want too much fuss to be made about it. So city officials, including members of the Charleston Police Department, corralled a group of media people in the old dispatch office downtown and proceeded to wow them with the unveiling of the Charleston Police Department’s brand new Crime Information Operations Center and Public Safety Operations Center.

That long name hides the fact that the CPD’s new toy is a surveillance center, and the inability to refer to it as such is a reflection of the world we live in. Orwell rules us, yes, but it’s Huxley that keeps us from noticing. Remember, there was a championship football game last Monday, and that is what was important, not some weird PR moment designed by the City of Charleston to not-so-subtly let all of us know that we are being watched.

In this world where “transparency” means “tell the people just enough so they feel we’re being honest with them,” Charleston police showed reporters 50-plus video monitors carrying feeds from live cameras across downtown. I imagine there were the appropriate nods and maybe even an “ooh” or “ahh” from the press as they furiously jotted down notes or, in this new, connected information age, live-tweeted the proceedings.

The outcome of the police’s dog-and-pony show — with Mayor Riley and then-Mayor-Elect John Tecklenburg tagging along — were a handful of puff pieces from local media “watchdogs.” These pieces highlighted the super-thrifty cost of the center (just $150,000!), but failed to deliver any substantive questions about the need to place so much of downtown under surveillance — and even less about the possible problems of having such a system in place. Nowhere in any of these reports is there a single word about the city’s data retention policy for these cameras, which are monitoring the movements of private citizens.

Why is this important? Well, for the sake of argument let’s assume that we live in a world that requires the police to be able to use cameras to watch large portions of a city. Let’s further assume that we’re OK with said surveillance in the furtherance of public safety. Are we still OK with the idea that our movements in the city may or may not be stored indefinitely? Or worse, that we simply don’t even know how long the data is kept or who can access it and for what reasons?

Why didn’t at least one reporter ask the police whether or not they A) have rules in place to assure us that they won’t store video from these cameras indefinitely, B) have strict policies governing who has access to this data, and C) consulted with the city’s lawyers before drafting any policies to ensure that the public’s rights are not trampled on?

And now some of you may be asking, “Well, as a journalist, shouldn’t you ask these questions yourself and report back to us your findings?” I’m tempted to say, yes, but I’m bound by my current situation to say, no. To be blunt, that’s not what I do.

As an opinion writer, I’m really not all that different from you, the reader. I’m only a journalist in the sense that I “journal” what I see crossing the real and virtual pages of the news. I’m a biased observer who delivers opinions on the news as it’s presented by the press, including the Charleston City Paper. I don’t spend hours begging for tidbits of data from sources. In this case, I should be either writing a column celebrating the police for a smart data-retention policy or excoriating them for a terrible one. But the reporters haven’t told me anything, so I don’t know what the police plan to do with all that video.

As a columnist, I am not — and I should not be — your final source for hard news about the people who are watching your every move downtown. That job is up to the “professionals” whose job it is to ask hard questions of the police, your elected officials, and the business people who sell your lives to you.

All too often in Charleston, and the rest of the world, the media is perfectly happy and content to be stenographers to the powerful and the status quo. After all, there aren’t very many awards to be won by asking hard questions of your sources — they might just shut you out of the ball game entirely. And that would never do.

So, if you’re upset by the idea that your daily activities are not only watched, but possibly recorded and accessed by police at any time and without reason, don’t be upset at the cops. Blame the media who’d rather help portray the Crime Information Operations Center and Public Safety Operations Center as a Good Thing™ for the Charleston Brand™.


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