Anatomy of Crime: Crimes Caught on Tape

"Anywhere people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy it is appropriate to use closed-circuit television, because it's just an extension of the officer on the beat." -- Thomas Seamon, V.P., Public Safety, University of Pensylvania.

Not so long ago, the very words "Public Safety" brought a smile to the face of your average American college student. The "Public Safety Officer" -- no more than a rent-a-cop who looked after college kids instead of high school students, reeked of failure, disappointment and resignation, dressed in a half-hearted attempt at a uniform, and approached "suspects" unarmed except for his or her ever-present walkie-talkie -- was never feared and most often mocked rather than obeyed, for it was commonly known that you were only in trouble when the fakes from Public Safety called in the real police.

Times have certainly changed, for today a high-tech rent-a-cop such as Thomas Seamon is to be feared as much as, if not more than, the real police. Today a glorified hall-monitor such as Thomas Seamon is in charge of a well-funded, very extensive and quite sophisticated closed-circuit television system that is used to surveil every inch of the entire campus of the University of Pennsylvania. This system -- and Thomas Seamon's badly worded and completely unfounded assertions about the constitutionality of the indiscriminate video surveillance of public places, the analogy between digital video cameras and the eyes of "the officer on the beat," and the legitimacy and effectiveness of the "public trust" that supposedly prevents surveillance systems such the one he operates from being abused -- are featured at great length in the episode of Anatomy of Crime: Crimes Caught on Tape that aired on the cable television station Court TV on 24 May 2000. This episode of Anatomy of Crime also happens to include a short segment on the Surveillance Camera Players, which, incidentally, addressed assertions such as those made by Seamon in a text addressed to the lawyers.

Though it is only 45 minutes long, the episode of Anatomy of Crime in question seems to go on for hours. It is filled with gruesome, nearly impossible-to-bear images and stories: robbers who attack or shoot the cashiers at convenience stores; parents afflicted with "Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy" who injure or poison their children; teenagers who gleefully terrorize innocent bystanders; young white men who rape and kill little black girls; neighbors who shoot and kill their neighbors; car drivers who beat up or shoot police officers who pull them over; police officers who savagely beat helpless and sometimes totally innocent people, and yet get away, either scot-free or with only a slap on the wrist; and -- perhaps worst of all, for their crimes are against reason itself -- criminal defense attorneys and "investigative journalists" in whose eyes Rodney King was "resisting arrest," and thus drew down upon himself what was simply the measured and "appropriate" response from the LAPD, and in whose eyes the man who hit Reginald Denny in the head with a concrete slab should have been charged with attempt to "injure" (a misdemeanor) not attempt to "kill" (a felony).

Reassuring comments by and bold ideas attributed to "video detective" Thomas Seamon are used to get the viewer through the carnage: he appears in three of the six segments into which the episode is divided. First, he's a subject of interest in a sub-segment; then he's a reference point for other "video detectives"; and finally he's the "authority" that reassures the viewer -- as the program is ending -- that video surveillance is "helping to bring down the crime rate" and will be used to bring about a "safer society." Given the repetition and the reliance on a single uncontested source, the message is almost brutally clear and impossible to disagree with: until human nature changes, video surveillance should be used everywhere and (in the words of the unimpeachable witness Thomas Seamon) "anywhere," because such surveillance produces videotapes that, once entered into evidence in criminal trials, lead to the conviction of the perpetrators. And that's what's important to our police officers and district attorneys, apparently: high conviction rates. Not a reduction in the crime rate itself, but merely reductions in the rates of dismissals, mistrials and acquittals.

Given the great damage that video surveillance does to our constitutionally guaranteed rights to privacy, free speech and free assembly, one is appalled and outraged by the fact that, contrary to the claims made by its proponents, video surveillance doesn't deter or prevent crime. All surveillance cameras seem to do is help catch and prosecute some of the perpetrators after the crimes have taken place. Despite the well-publicized existence of closed-circuit security systems, people continue to commit crimes that are routinely "caught on tape." Despite the large number of shows that show crimes or outrageous behavior "caught on tape," one never sees footage that proves or even validates the oft-repeated contention of the proponents of video surveillance that criminals will "think twice" about committing a crime when they see that a CCTV system is in place. On the contrary: over and over again, one sees criminals commiting crimes despite the presence of surveillance cameras.

And yet people like Vice President Seamon -- and the TV producer(s) who thought so highly of Seamon that he was made the show's unofficial spokesperson -- support and maintain the dubious rationality of a system in which it is "logical" (rather than psychotic) to propose that, in the name of improving the all-important conviction rate, video camcorders should be sold or given to each and every American citizen, but especially teenagers. Judging by the footage acquired and aired by Anatomy of Crime, American teenagers -- whether they be apolitical "rebels" or politicized activists -- do a lot of senseless property damage, and sometimes attack innocent bystanders and passersby for the thrill of it. In an apparent paradox -- one that is mentioned but not explored by the show, perhaps because this paradox is now routinely exploited by technologically savvy police officers and prosecuting attorneys -- these teenagers are likely to "catch themselves on tape," that is, if they happen to possess a video camcorder. (One report has it that one in three American homes have a "family camcorder.") Judging by the "evidence" submitted by Anatomy of Crime and other similar shows (there are a great many of them), the majority of the crimes committed by American teenagers are committed as much for their capturability on and subsequent appeal as videotape, which can be viewed or "re-lived" (minus any sense of wrongdoing, guilt or remorse) over and over again (even by people who were not present at the original incident), as for their appeal as unique, unreproducible moments. Quite clearly, such transparently spectacular behavior indicates that American teens have completely internalized the spectacular logic and preferences of the "law & order" groups (the police and the prosecutors).

What sensitive soul could watch 45 minutes of this gruesome shit without being appalled and revolted? What inquisitive mind could watch these images and still manage to remain "open" to alternate, marginal or radical viewpoints on the subject? What whole-hearted opponent of surveillance cameras could tolerate three-quarters of an hour of The Thomas Seamon Show so that he or she could see a two-minute-long subsegment on the SCP, which appears at the close of the episode? The answer to all three questions is the same -- no one.

And so it really doesn't matter what Anatomy of Crime: Crimes Caught on Tape says or doesn't say about the lone "citizen" (Bill Brown of the Surveillance Camera Players, identified as a "street theater group") and the lone "civil libertarian" (Norm Siegal, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union) who are said to be "concerned" about the effect of surveillance cameras on our constitutionally protected rights. Anyone with a sensitive soul, an open mind or a courageous heart has already turned the channel or turned the TV off. Conversely, anyone who has watched all the way through will already be convinced that people such as Bill Brown and Norm Siegal -- no matter how clever or eloquent -- are just plain wrong. Everything that preceded their segment in the show proves it.

Despite the facts that the team from Langley Productions interviewed and taped the SCP in a variety of locations (City Hall, Washington Square Park, and the Waverly Theater) and over the course of two days of shooting (29 February 2000 and 1 April 2000), the segment on the group contains nothing worth seeing -- with the exception of the SCP's untitled play about the police murder of Amadou Diallo, which has only been performed once.

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