Providence, Rhode Island

On Wednesday 24 September and Thursday 25 September 2003, Bill Brown of the New York Surveillance Camera Players was in Providence, Rhode Island, to give a surveillance camera walking tour to the students enrolled in "Publicity and Surveillance," an undergraduate-level course offered by Brown University's Modern Culture & Media department.

Though Providence is the home of several colleges and universities, the best known of which are the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Brown University, Bill concentrated on downtown Providence, which the City government has tried to nickname "Downcity." Though downtown Providence is adjacent to "College Hill" (a literal and rather steep hill leading up to the "Eastside," aka the Student Ghetto), the two areas are separated from each other by a polluted mid-19th century shipping canal that once allowed local manufacturers and shipping companies to use the Providence River to reach the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike College Hill, which is steep and very "old school," downtown Providence is flat and very "modern."

But the separation between downtown Providence and College Hill is economic as well as physical and aesthetic. Like most of southern New England, Providence (a "Rust Belt" city) still hasn't recovered from the industrial "turndown" of the 1970s. Despite the presence of a new convention center and several new hotels, "Downcity" remains a downer: full of homeless people, unoccupied buildings and police officers on patrol. In a very stark contrast, RISD and Brown are very expensive "Ivy League" schools, each of which charge over $25,000 per year in tuition.

And so, in the interests of fostering good relations between "town and gown," as well as seeing as many different kinds of cameras as possible, the walking tour was conducted downtown, and not on "the Hill." Bill did most of the camera spotting and mapping on Wednesday 24 September. The next day, he completed the map, photocopied it, and dropped off a copy at the offices of the Rhode Island Civil Liberties Union (RICLU), which in April 2002 forced the Providence Police Department (PPD) to admit that, two years after the PPD started installing surveillance cameras in public places, it still had no policies or guidelines covering their use. Without any guidelines in place, the PPD can (ab)use its cameras in any way it sees fit.

The same thing goes for the Rhode Island State Police (RISP), which has legal authority for the installation and constant monitoring of surveillance cameras along the Interstate highway system. The problem with this "legal authority" is that it violates federal law concerning wiretapping and eavesdropping (Title III), which mandates that warrants based upon probable cause are required for the police to engage in "bugging" (audio surveillance).

Introduced by State Senators Lenihan, Raptakis, Kells and Sosnowski on 26 January 2000, and immediately put into effect, "An Act Relating to State Affairs and Government -- Mounted Video/Audio Surveillance Cameras -- State Police" promises that the Rhode Island state government "shall provide ten (10) mounted video/audio surveillance cameras annually to the Rhode Island state police for each of the next five (5) years and said devices shall be utilized by the state police consistent with the intent of this chapter."

(Do the math, taxpayers of Rhode Island: that's a total of 50 cameras, each of which [probably] costs around $25,000; that's a total of $1.25 million, but this figure -- large as it is for the smallest state in the USA -- doesn't include the construction of the monitoring station [add another $1 million] or the annual expense of staffing it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year [add another $5 million]. And so the real expense of this [pre-September 11th] program is a whopping $7.5 million!)

This law is obviously unconstitutional. It fails to recognize the profound legal and technological differences between surveillance by video camera and surveillance by microphone. It also fails to recognize the impossibility of the police ever using such video/audio combinations in a manner "consistent with the intent of this chapter." In its "Declaration of policy," the law mandates that "it will be the state legislature's policy to provide more resources to state law enforcement to reduce alcohol related vehicular crashes and fatalities," and in its statement of "Purpose and intent," the law explains that "The purpose [intent] of this chapter is to provide greater access to state law enforcement to video surveillance cameras to reduce alcohol related traffic fatalities" (emphasis added). It is far from clear how high-powered remote-controlled video cameras -- let alone ultra-sensitive remote-controlled microphones -- help the state police crack down on drunk driving. Some explanation is needed, and none is given.


Over the course of five hours of walking up and down the streets of downtown Providence, Bill found a total of 94 surveillance cameras that watch public places: 50 installed on privately owned buildings; 19 installed on federal government buildings; 19 installed on city government buildings or city owned poles; and 6 installed at the tops of tall buildings. For a variety of reasons, these results are quite significant.

First and foremost, the area Bill mapped -- the "financial district," the area cupped on its eastern side by the canal and on its western side by Interstate 95 -- is a very small part of the sprawling City of Providence, which also includes College Hill (and the rest of "the East Side"), Federal Hill (where reputed mob figures reputedly live), and South Providence (where obviously black/latino/poor people live). And so 94 cameras is a lot of cameras. Near-by New Haven, Connecticut has only 40 cameras; Boston, which is a much bigger city, has only 34 more than Providence.

Of those 94 cameras, 38 of them, that is, more than a third, are installed on government property (city, state, federal). This is unusual. In New York City, in both rich and poor neighborhoods, only 1 in 10 cameras are "government cameras." In Boston, the ratio is 1 in 7, and in Chicago, it's 1 in 4. Significantly, it's only in the smaller cities -- Portland, Oregon, New Haven, Connecticut and now Providence, Rhode Island -- that the ratio is 1 in 2.5 (or forty-percent).

These trends suggest that, if, when or as the smaller cities "catch up" with the larger ones, the increase (usually triple-fold) can and will only come from the private sector. The police have already installed the majority of the cameras they want to have, and typically add few, if any, new ones after the first onslaught. In the case of downtown Providence, these trends suggest that, in five years, there will be 168 private cameras where there are now "only" 56, and a total of 206 cameras where there are now "only" 94.

One can see a glimpse of that bleak future in Kennedy Plaza, the very center of downtown Providence. As one moves further away from the canal and into downtown, Kennedy Plaza includes two federal buildings (one with 7 cameras at it, the other with 10); a row of banks (6 cameras); the "intermodal transportation center" recently built by the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority (3 cameras); and City Hall (9 cameras). In total, that's 35 cameras in a single, super-surveilled place. Not coincidentally, Kennedy Plaza is frequented by the usual suspects: teenagers hanging out while waiting to use public transportation to go to or get home from school; workers paid too poorly to afford to take the train or own a car; homeless people with nowhere else to go; adventurous students from RISD drawing pictures of the amazing buildings and statues; etc etc.


The walking tour began at 1 pm on Thursday 25 September and drew 50 people (!), most of them Brown University students or faculty members. As Bill explained, standing at the meeting point (the College Hill side of the canal), the tour participants could be seen by at least three teams of surveillants: 1) federal guards, watching from within one or both of the two federal buildings on the other side of the canal; 2) Rhode Island Department of Transportation personnel, using the camera installed at the top of Washington Street; and 3) the unknown people (bank security guards? police officers? FBI agents?) who installed the "elevated" camera at the top of the bank that towers over the downtown side of the canal.

In a truly remarkable coincidence, just as Bill was starting the part of the presentation that concerns aerial surveillance (helicopters, spy planes and satellites), a police helicopter approached and hovered above the group. Perhaps it was called to the scene because "alert" guards or officers had spotted a very large and therefore "suspicious" group of people, standing in the general vicinity of the federal buildings. Or perhaps it was the group's proximity to the world headquarters of Textron, a huge company that builds helicopters for the US military, that required such a dramatic response. In any event, the copter circled around three times, making enough noise to drown Bill out, before finally departing. If it had been a scripted, pre-arranged moment, it would have been corny; as it was, it was very effective, a thunderous and strangely funny affirmation of what Bill was saying.

(Originally posted 27 September 2003. Corrected 17 September 2004.)

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