At a private meeting with South Side bar owners to discuss concerns about neighborhood violence earlier this month, District Attorney Stephen Zappala floated the idea of expanding the county’s existing South Side surveillance network to include drivers license scanners at all establishments and possibly sharing sensitive data with business owners.
Zappala says these measures would allow businesses to track disruptive patrons and curb a reported rise in criminal activity throughout the district. But advocates for racial justice and police accountability say the proposal will compromise the safety of individuals whose licenses are scanned into the hypothetical system and may place low-income and Black people at increased risk of police violence.
“This is just a way to increase surveillance and tracking with no real clear explanation of how it would at all reduce violence or make the neighborhood safer,” Brandi Fisher of the Alliance for Police Accountability tells Pittsburgh City Paper in an email. “Who will make the call on which people are needing to be tracked? How will we know the people being tracked actually pose any danger and aren't just people bartenders don't like? What would stop racist bars from using this as a legal way to enforce segregation?”
Zappala maintains that more surveillance on the South Side is “the right thing,” telling CBS News of the bar owners he spoke with, "These guys are losing money. They are businesspeople. They want to do the right thing. Everything is on the table from the technology in the bars, the cameras outside that directly link to police agencies."
Both Fisher and Miracle Jones, director of advocacy and policy at 1Hood, raise concerns about data security. Fisher wonders how long the proposed system would store personal information and what’s to stop someone with access to this information from selling it or committing fraud.
Jones shares these concerns, adding that the cooperation between law enforcement and private businesses could raise further legal questions.
“This is a highly problematic partnership, as it circumvents constitutional protections from searches and seizures and allows private entities to record and surveil patrons without notice. There are also additional concerns with how data will be stored and tracked,” Jones tells City Paper.
Other advocates fear that additional policing and surveillance on the South Side would create unnecessary opportunities for potentially-fatal police contact with vulnerable populations.
“Interactions with police over minor offenses can ensnare someone in the criminal legal system or escalate to police-inflicted violence, particularly for Black and brown people,” write Dontae Gordon and Brandon Walsh of the ACLU Smart Justice campaign in a Post-Gazette op-ed opposing an increased police presence on the South Side.
Zappala also suggested a curfew for minors, which APA decries, writing “imposing a curfew on youth does nothing, but open another door for young people to enter the criminal legal system.”
Ultimately, “this is a business decision, not a community safety decision,” Fisher says, that endangers vulnerable populations and doesn’t offer a way to hold bar owners accountable for the environments they create.
Mike Manko, Zappala’s spokesperson, tells TribLIVE “nothing has been decided yet” about whether or how the technology would be implemented. In an email to City Paper, Manko notes this kind of surveillance is already in partial use on the South Side but declined to respond to advocates’ questions regarding data privacy or civil rights concerns.
“There are at least two bars on Carson and possibly a couple more that already employ these types of scanners,” he says.