not the usual bullshit

At approximately 7:40 pm Eastern Standard Time on Monday 26 August 2002, Bill Brown of the New York Surveillance Camera Players (SCP-New York) appeared as an in-studio guest on Nachman, which is a live news program that airs every weekday between 7 and 8 pm on MSNBC (cable television). Named after its host, Jerry Nachman -- formerly a NYC crime reporter and the editor-in-chief of The New York Post, now the editor-in-chief of news at MSNBC -- Nachman became interested in having Bill Brown as a guest after the show's producer read about the SCP-New York's weekly walking tours in an article originally posted to the Associated Press News Wire on 21 July 2002 and finally re-printed by and several others on 18 and 19 August 2002.

Originally scheduled for 21 August 2002, Bill's appearance on the Nachman show -- his second appearance on MSNBC -- was bumped because, a few hours before he was supposed to go on, there was "breaking news" (the conviction of accused child-killer David Westerfield was announced). As a result of the re-scheduling, the content of the segment on surveillance cameras changed somewhat: Bill was now going to be interviewed by Jerry and pitted in a split-screen "debate" with Edward Norris, the Police Commissioner of Baltimore.

Why not someone from the obvious choices, New York and Washington DC? Why someone from Baltimore, of all places? Well, why not? There are plenty of surveillance cameras installed in public places and watched by the police in "Charm City." Originally installed in 1996, these cameras were in fact among the first to be used by law enforcement groups on the East Coast since the late 1960s, when such cameras were first tried out and then quickly taken down because they didn't lead to the arrest and conviction of serious criminals and so didn't warrant the very costly expense of installing, constantly monitoring and frequently repairing them. In April 2000, the SCP-New York went down to Baltimore and performed in front of a few of these "historic" surveillance cameras, which have been "up graded" (they've gone wireless) since then.

Ed Norris has been a controversial figure ever since he was brought to Baltimore from NYC, where between 1980 and 2000 he served as a police officer and later a deputy police commissioner. His appointment was originally protested by local black groups, because Norris is white, from out-of-town and a "disciple" of anti-crime hero Rudolph Giuliani (who is widely and accurately perceived as racially insensitive, even not actually bigoted), and because Baltimore is a predominantly black city. And so, when the murder rate in the city (long one of the highest murder rates in the nation) dramatically dropped in his first year in office, Norris did his best to capitalize on the (photo) opportunity thus presented. Emulating Giuliani, he started appearing on television, most notably, on the HBO (cable TV) series The City, which concerns the "fictional" (crime-ridden) city of Baltimore. Norris plays "himself," that is, the Police Commisssioner.

None of these juicy details got mentioned on Nachman. Also left unmentioned were the facts that Norris is a personal friend of Jerry Nachman and that on 23 August 2002 -- that is, between the postponement and the re-scheduling of Bill Brown's appearance on the show -- Commissioner Norris found it necessary to officially apologize to the People and City of Baltimore because it had come out that, since becoming Commissioner, Norris has improperly used nearly $200,000 in "a supplemental account" (a police charity fund) to pay for numerous personal trips to his native New York City, where he paid for expensive steak dinners, gold cuff-links, tickets to Yankee games, etc. etc.

No doubt relieved beyond words to be -- thanks to his friend at MSNBC -- talking about something other than the s-c-a-n-d-a-l, Commissioner Norris was smartly dressed, looked confident and smiled the whole time. But, as it turned out, he wasn't really prepared for this particular TV appearance. Perhaps there hadn't been time for him to "bone up" on his department's use of surveillance cameras; perhaps he hadn't felt that any preparation was going to be necessary. He probably figured that, given his friendship with Jerry, he could get by with the usual bullshit. No doubt Norris expected the usual bullshit -- albeit from a "liberal" or "Leftist" stand-point -- from this Bill Brown guy, whom Norris probably imagined to be either a spoiled child or a paranoid freak.

Because he hadn't come up from Baltimore to MSNBC's studio in unlovely Secaucus, New Jersey, but went to the studio of the local NBC-TV affiliate instead, Commissioner Norris could hear what was being said during the broadcast, but he couldn't see and thus get visual cues from Jerry; he couldn't see the great-looking videotape of the SCP-New York's version of 1984, excerpts of which were played during the broadcast; and he couldn't see how well-dressed, well-behaved and serious-looking this Bill Brown guy turned out to be. Norris -- a Professional Watcher who was temporarily unable to see anything at all -- couldn't have known that his uniform, a smile and a Ronald Reagan-esque anecdote about a little old lady who wanted a camera installed where she lived just weren't going to do it this time. Unless Norris had been listening very carefully, he couldn't have surmised that he'd just been trounced until he got home and watched the debate for himself when it was re-broadcast on MSNBC a few hours later.

Despite his reputation for being good in front of a camera, Norris just didn't have what he needed: a few well-chosen words quickly delivered, convincing arguments, clever sound-bites and good rebuttals. If Nachman hadn't abandoned his role as discussion facilitator and joined Norris in praising the usefulness of surveillance cameras -- which Nachman did almost immediately after the Commissioner started mumbling his first few words -- it wouldn't have been much of a debate at all. Bill Brown was so focused and well-prepared that, given a little time, he would of mopped the floor with the guy! After all, Bill has been giving walking tours of camera locations every week for nearly two straight years. Perhaps Nachman threwn his weight behind Norris because he realized that the Commissioner was coming across poorly and needed (even more) help. Perhaps it was a set-up from the beginning, a triangulation-move designed to get Brown to feel cornered, lose his composure and start an unproductive quarrel with one (or both) of the two gentlemen. But despite repeated encouragements from the show's producer to "jump in [interrupt] at any time," piped into his ear via a small Secret Service-style earphone provided by MSNBC, Bill hung back and then, when he was ready, rebutted each and every point (save one) made by the Nachman/Norris team.

Perhaps the most pertinent rebuttal concerned Norris's statement -- prompted by Brown's observation that it was illogical for the police to refuse to label their otherwise invisible cameras -- that "We want to keep the cameras secret from the criminals, but not from the public." But the police can't have it both ways! Keeping "secrets" of this kind is not only odious, it is also impossible, because telling "the public" is the same thing as telling "the criminals." The only way the police could confine ignorance of the cameras to "the criminals" (and no one else) would be to treat every single member of the public (except themselves, of course!) as either a potential or an actual criminal. And though the police clearly want to do this (it would make their jobs so much "easier"), they can't and shouldn't be allowed to, because -- as Bill was forced to remind the Nachman/Norris duo -- "this [our society] is a democracy," not a police state.

The only point that Bill didn't manage to rebut was the assertion (made by both Nachman and Norris) that "there is no expectation of privacy in public places." Nachman repeatedly referred to this dubious contention as "settled law," and tried to back it up by mentioning a case from the 1940s that involved filming by a private TV company at a baseball game, not video surveillance by police officers on a city street. Bill managed to cite a more recent Supreme Court decision (Katz vs. the United States, 1967), which held that the expectation of privacy in public places is reasonable. But the rebuttal failed to be convincing because it didn't really get to the heart of the matter, which -- Bill now realizes -- isn't so much the expectation of privacy, as it is the Constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. And that's exactly what video surveillance is: the unreasonable search for and seizure of visual information.

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