Magazine December 31, 2012, Issue

Panopticon, New Jersey

Eye in the Sky, Jersey City, N.J. (Alyssa Ki/Jersey Journal)
A note on the age of scaring ourselves safe

Jersey City, N.J. — Police chief Tom Comey calls it his “eye in the sky.” Jeremy Bentham called it “the Panopticon,” and the idea has been around for a while: “Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated — instruction diffused — public burdens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the Gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!” wrote Bentham in perfervid praise of his brother Samuel’s innovative prison blueprint. In the case of Jersey City, the relevant piece of architecture is a rolling three-story guard tower equipped with 360-degree views, a variety of sensors, and the ability to be operated remotely. Bentham’s Panopticon was to be the ideal enclosure for criminals; U.S. police authorities are building something similar, with an important difference: All of us are inside their new Panopticon.

This city is, by the standards of urban New Jersey, not the worst place. It has some rather nice stretches and some godawful ones, but it does not feel much like the grimy, post-apocalyptic nightmares of Trenton and Newark, both places with a roll-’em-up-and-lock-’em vibe about them. Jersey City certainly is nothing like perennial national murder capital Camden. It is, however, in the direct line of sight of lower Manhattan and the new World Trade Center, which pushes a lot of national-security buttons. But while potential port-security applications were cited in favor of the new tower, it made its maiden voyage far away from any terrorism hot spot, on a particularly nasty-looking and crime-ridden stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard near a plaza known as the “hub,” which is home to a grim McDonald’s and a number of storefronts, many of them for local services agencies.

The ward surrounding the hub is one of the Jersey City neighborhoods suffering the most from crime, and, as is the case in a great many poor and heavily black areas, the locals’ attitude toward crime is paradoxical: They want better police protection, and they don’t really like the police. When the Eye in the Sky and stepped-up policing efforts were announced in December, one resident who had been a vocal critic of the city’s failure to address crime warned about the dangers of a “militarized” police force’s “occupying a hostile area.” The municipal political leadership is beyond dysfunctional: Along with the Eye in the Sky, the federal government is providing funding for additional police officers and patrols in Jersey City, and the main reaction from the local political class has been to complain that the timing is “political” — Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy faces a potentially tough reelection fight this year. Lack of three-story mobile Panopticon towers is not Jersey City’s major governmental challenge.

It isn’t New York City’s biggest problem, either, but the city has its own tower, too. The Eye in the Sky — formally the ICx Tactical Platforms SkyWatch system, a jaw-exhausting name for what is basically a trailer sporting a telescopic strut with a box at the end — is in fact a worldwide favorite. The Washington State Department of Corrections uses one, and so does the Border Patrol at Nogales. You’ll find SkyWatch towers in the United Arab Emirates and at the U.S. Navy base at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Mesquite, Texas, population 139,824, has a couple of SkyWatch towers it bought with money seized from drug dealers. It uses them mostly to keep an eye on strip-mall parking lots during Christmas shopping.

In fact, SkyWatch was originally designed for parking-lot duty: It is the state-of-the-art platform for Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Its history is explained in a white paper authored by Robert Blackwood and Read Hays of the Loss Prevention Research Council, which is to shoplifters what the CIA is to al-Qaeda: “The SkyWatch system is designed to reduce crime by discouraging potential offenders from deciding to use SkyWatch-protected parking lots as a location of opportunity for theft, assaults, or other crimes.” The paper does not attempt to meaningfully measure whether SkyWatch towers reduce crime; rather, it measures whether law-enforcement personnel and other relevant authorities believe the towers reduce crime. In effect, the authors polled people who spent money on SkyWatch towers to find out whether they thought they had made a good decision or had wasted taxpayers’ dollars. A full 100 percent of respondents rated the tower as effective at preventing crime, a result that is 100 percent unsurprising: The SkyWatch system, the authors conclude, may “improve parking lot visitors’ and employee users’ perception of safety.”

“Perception” is the key word here. The theory behind the SkyWatch tower is that just as an empty police cruiser parked alongside the highway will slow down speeders, a SkyWatch tower deployed to the local Walmart parking lot or a rough part of Jersey City will dissuade criminals — regardless of whether anybody is inside the tower or monitoring its video feed back at the police station. Jersey City’s Chief Comey acknowledged as much in describing the project: “We want people to understand that whether or not there’s a cop in there, it’s fully capable of determining what our needs are at a specific moment in time — should we choose.”

Bentham made precisely the same argument for the Panopticon: The work of many guards can be done by one man — and a great deal of the work can be done with nobody watching at all, so long as everybody thinks somebody might be watching. Bentham credited this to the “apparent omnipresence of the inspector.” He argued that total surveillance would have the added benefit of curbing cruelty and corruption among jailers, who would be under the constant supervision of their beady-eyed warden: “It presents an answer, and that a satisfactory one, to one of the most puzzling of political questions — Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

Evidence for Bentham’s theory is scarce. Not far from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s beachside accommodations at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay — a site also overseen by a SkyWatch tower — is the only functioning prison based on Bentham’s Panopticon, Cuba’s Presidio Modelo. The Castro brothers themselves were locked up there in the early 1950s, and today the Castro regime uses it as a dungeon for political prisoners. Cruelty and corruption is the Cuban government’s standard operating procedure.

The American Panopticon is something else: a patchwork of police and national-security surveillance, ATM cameras, traffic cameras, drones, satellites, GPS tracking, and a bunch of portable watchtowers at $100,000 a pop.

The SkyWatch towers may in fact be nonsense upon stilts and wheels, but the dream of the Panopticon lives on. The Obama administration has decided to use the National Counterterrorism Center to track millions of Americans with no known ties to crime — much less ties to terrorism — in a move that the Department of Homeland Security’s chief privacy officer called “a sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public.” It received no legal authorization from Congress to do so. While New Jersey is busy erecting towers to observe and videotape all who come and go, the state is also throwing its residents in jail for videotaping police officers, and New York City does the same to those who document the Finest at work. The federal government gave the city of Charlotte, N.C., millions of dollars to secure the Democratic National Convention against possible terror attacks, and now that same equipment — including wireless cameras, microphones, license-plate scanners, and other surveillance gear — is being used for general law-enforcement work.

Warrantless surveillance has become common in ordinary law-enforcement practice having nothing to do with terrorism, while airline passengers who have had one too many Bloody Marys find themselves prosecuted under PATRIOT Act provisions. People who are accused of no crime have their telecommunications records searched — and, if some innocent should inquire about whether he is being spied on, the government refuses to tell him. Across the country, police-department manuals advise police to mislead the public about their surveillance practices. The ACLU turned up a document from Irvine, Calif., police reading: “Never disclose to the media these techniques — especially cell tower tracking” (the determination of a cell phone’s location by means of tower signals). The litany goes on.

The worst thing here is not the silly misallocation of scarce government resources, or even the gross and omnipresent invasion of privacy, which is indeed worrisome but seems to be an almost inevitable condition of life in a modern technological society. The most objectionable thing is that for all the money spent and privacy forgone, we remain extraordinarily vulnerable. We spend millions on high-tech toys for police, but getting cops to walk a beat in an urban environment — one of the few things regularly shown to be effective in actually reducing crime — is a Herculean labor. Our national fear of flying has become something worse than a phobia, but with its employees involved in everything from petty theft and hate crimes to drug smuggling and child pornography, the Transportation Security Administration is looking like part of the problem. The Department of Homeland Security has seen 2,527 of its employees convicted of crimes since 2004, and there are more than 1,500 open criminal cases against them. For all our drones and National Security Agency voodoo, basic national-security and law-enforcement chores go undone. It is worth keeping in mind that had the U.S. government done a minimally competent job of screening visa applicants and policing those who overstay their visas, there simply would have been no 9/11.

The Homeland Security–funded ICx Tactical Platforms SkyWatch tower standing sentinel on some blasted, lunar-landscape block in Jersey City, empty, with nobody at the controls, is the perfect monument for the age of trying to scare ourselves safe. We have eyes in the sky, and everywhere else, but we do not see.

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