deterrence as crazy poker game

"[Angola in 1975] was like some crazy poker game, with the players pushing stacks of chips into the middle of the table without bothering to look at their cards." -- Ernest Volkman and Blaine Baggett, authors of Secret Intelligence: The Inside Story of America's Espionage Empire (1989).

Surveillance cameras supposedly "prevent," "fight" or "reduce" crime. How? By deterring potential criminals from carrying out their plans or taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves by chance. A two-stage process: the criminals 1) know that cameras are in operation (by hearing news reports, reading signs the police have posted, or seeing the cameras themselves), and then 2) decide not to commit crimes in that particular place.

There are at least a half-dozen problems with this apparently simple scenario: 1) some police departments in America haven't announced or confirmed the very existence of their video cameras, preferring instead to operate them in complete secrecy (as if they were spies, not cops); 2) few police departments place warning signs nearby their cameras, which makes seeing or knowing about them much more difficult; 3) some (globe-shaped) surveillance cameras are intentionally designed to be confused with lamps or street ornaments, and so cannot be easily identified; 4) it is illogical to expect rational decisions from people (the potential criminals) in whom one is systematically trying to instill paranoia; 5) rather than "preventing" crime, surveillance cameras -- when they have any measurable effect -- displace crime to places in which potential criminals think there are no cameras in operation; and 6) according to Priscilla Edwards, the pro-surveillance executive director of a community center in a "high crime" area (quoted by Chevel Johnson of the Associated Press on 1 September 2003), "most criminals act without thinking," and so nothing, neither cop nor camera, is going to deter these thoughtless brutes from breaking the law.

Less obvious but no less serious problems concern the concept of "deterrence," which has been imported from military strategy into civilian law enforcement. Deterrence is an attempt to win the war on the cheap. It doesn't try to use force (very expensive) to control bodies; instead, it tries to use (cheap) "psychology" to control the minds that control the bodies. Deterrence is supposed to be a more civilized form of warfare (or social control): it is persuavive, not coercive. Before being called in to justify surveillance cameras, this utter bullshit was used during the Cold War (the Russians would "think twice" before attacking if they knew the USA had more and better bombs than they did) and in endless debates in the 1970s and '80s about capital punishment (criminals, especially "drug dealers," would "think twice" before committing certain crimes if they knew the State could kill them if it caught them). In all the battlefields in which it has been applied, deterrence has created nothing but massively wasteful arms races.

Employing an interesting metaphor, Joe Cook, the executive director of the Louisiana ACLU (quoted in the same AP article referred to above), says that the use of surveillance cameras in public places is "a reckless gamble of precious privacy rights." The police are metaphorically betting that their surveillance cameras will bring in returns that are supposed to be more valuable than "precise privacy rights" (safety and security). The ACLU says that this bet is reckless; the police say it isn't. . . .

Gambling, sure. But what's the game? Greg Meffert, New Orleans' chief technology officer, knows the answer. "These cameras are a strong card to play," he told the Associated Press. Poker is the game. Surveillance cameras are a gamble, a card (or trick) to play, a stack of chips pushed into the middle of the table by the police. Deterrence is the dopey theory that the most-likely response of the other players (i.e., potential criminals), when confronted with the size of that mightly stack of chips, will be to fold, leave the game and go "elsewhere."

Anyone who actually plays cards will recognize the distinct possibility that the police's impressively big stack of chips -- lots of high-tech surveillance cameras -- might just be a bluff. The police might have weak cards. Or they might have strong cards, but it might turn out that someone else's cards are even stronger. In either case, indeed, the whole point of the game itself is the possibility that it might be worth it to get in and stay in the game, just for another hand. Potential criminals might just as likely "see the bet," put a stack of their own chips in the middle of the table, and might rob a location that is said to be highly surveilled, just to see if cameras have in fact been installed and if they really work. Or the player might even "raise the stakes," and rob a heavily surveilled location wearing a disguise, a mask or someone else's face.

Joe Cook is right: the gamble isn't worth it. Not only that, the whole crazy game is crooked.

Count us out.

(5 October 2003).

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