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The Right to Be Let Alone

A #VQRTrueStory Essay

ISSUE:  Summer 2019


Beaver Street runs eight straight blocks, north and south, through the southern end of Lancaster City, Pennsylvania. Richard is on his front porch smoking a cigarette; the rest of the street is deserted. From his chair you can see a round, white surveillance camera at the end of the block, craning from its mount on a telephone pole. Per capita, Lancaster is one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the country, with about one camera for every 350 people. He says the cameras don’t bother him. He feels safe. He shrugs. What does he care if they see him get his bicycle out of the basement, go for a ride?

Who they are is unclear to him. But Richard’s in on it too, as are a whole lot of business owners and private citizens in the city. A smile, you’re on camera sign is in the window of Richard’s house, which is brick, painted lime green. He’s from Puerto Rico, moved to the city when he was a teenager. For decades, the boricua and the Anabaptists, the plain Amish and Mennonite sects Lancaster is known for, have had an odd-couple relationship here. Almost 40 percent of the city’s population is now Latino. Richard’s retired, but he works part-time at the nearby Bright Side Opportunities Center, named for the Baptist church that runs it. And he lives in the last part of town where a row house still costs $40,000.

“When I came here in the ’70s there were racial issues between blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans,” he says. “That stuff’s over. We all get along. But back in the day….” I remember those days, too; Lancaster is my hometown. We were the rural white kids who hated “the city” and thought it was dangerous. Now I’m here, walking around Richard’s part of town thinking it might be a fine place to buy a little house, settle down, when I retire in a couple decades.

“So what’s changed?” I ask him.

“Growth,” Richard says. “I guess there are people that own their own houses here, like the guy next door. But also we got landlords. They don’t care about the property, all they care about is collecting the money. You call them because you need something fixed. They take their time doing it or they avoid it, things like that.”

Gentrification. Slum lords. The rising cost of rent. Property values. Richard is telling me that somehow the cameras are a symptom of the city’s economic aspirations. 


The first camera was installed in 2005, at the corner of East King and North Lime Streets, some ten blocks from where Richard lives. Today there are 170 cameras, installed, monitored, and maintained by the Lancaster Safety Coalition (LSC), a nonprofit that evolved out of a special-commission crime report in the year 2000. The report found the city’s safety wanting. City and business leaders liked this clear diagnosis; it told them how to bring about economic revitalization.

LSC’s network of cameras is heavily rooted in a narrative of safety, business success, the protection of property, and increasing tourism. It’s a narrative that, since inception, has garnered a community buy-in of at least $4 million—enticed by marketing quips like, “An Important Addition To Lancaster’s Safety…Made Possible By You,” and “Another Set Of Eyes Is Always Welcome When It Comes To Loved Ones.” Despite the anodyne one-liners, profit, order, and gentrification propel the organization’s broken-windows–like purpose: “Research has proven that a mobilized community helps eliminate problem properties, reduces crime and disorder, and enhances property values.”

What are “problem properties”? And when you eliminate them, where do those tenants go?

LSC has a core text, Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, the Harvard professor examines social capital since the highly mythologized 1950s to “prove” that civic engagement has plummeted, drastically decreasing social networks and civic good.

His nostalgia for the largely white, business-oriented Elks and Shriners is something Lancaster’s present-day Chamber of Commerce appreciates. Thomas Friedman, appreciates it, too. When the New York Times’s unwitting columnist rolled through Lancaster last summer—a few months after Forbes named it one of the “10 Coolest U.S. Cities to Visit”—he found the seeds of the country’s revitalization in Lancaster’s example. By “throwing partisan politics out the window and forming a complex adaptive coalition,” the grass roots could save the city, make a bunch of money, and defy the inherently inept federal government. It’s an equation that the Lancaster City Alliance, a major funder of the surveillance-camera program, chirpily translates as: “Strong Community + Strong Economy = VIBRANT CITY.”

A division of LSC championed by the Lancaster City Bureau of Police, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, extols the benefits of “territorial reinforcement,” “natural surveillance,” “natural access control,” and “maintenance” as companion solutions to crime. If you build it right, they won’t come.


There are surveillance cameras everywhere in Lancaster, sometimes two on a corner. They’re in the graveyard where James Buchanan, the country’s much-maligned, never-married, fifteenth president is buried; they’re on South Prince near the Water Street Mission, restoring lives “through rescue and renewal” for more than one hundred years; they’re outside Rivera’s Grocery Store on the corner of Beaver and Andrew. They’re in the fancy parts of town as well as the less fancy.

Between Rivera’s and Richard’s place, I run into three guys in their twenties. Two are on the porch, shielded from the corner camera by the side of the house. The third, Walbert, is on the sidewalk, but his back is to the camera and his hood is up. He’s wearing a Patriots sweatshirt because it’s Super Bowl Sunday. He tells me the cameras serve the cops, not the public.

“I can sit in my front yard and a cop will just come by, stop, and stare at me because I’m just standing around,” Walbert tells me. “Just five minutes ago one passed by and looked at us like this.” He does the head scan. His friends nod in agreement. The way he sees it, they’re the cows and sheep in one big pen and the cops are the farmers. “You know, we don’t have freedom here,” he says. “It may look like it, but there’s no freedom here.” When he finishes college—he’s getting a degree at a local technical institute—he wants to leave, find a place where he doesn’t look up at a camera every time he comes out of his house. They tell me that rather than cameras on the street, they’d like to see cameras on the cops. That might make them feel better. In November 2018, Lancaster rolled out a pilot program for police officer body cameras.


The AutoDome and EnviroDome pan-tilt-zoom surveillance cameras, manufactured by Bosch, can scan 360 degrees at all times. Their footage, LSC says, is saved for up to fourteen days, then is discarded unless the organization is contacted by law enforcement to preserve it. Up to eighteen hours a day, depending on the day, LSC’s staff members sit in a room at the organization’s headquarters on Conestoga Street and watch footage. They are trained in the “ethics and accountabilities associated with monitoring public spaces,” and “diversity and cultural awareness,” among other things. If they see something suspicious, they call the police. If the police need to find evidence for a crime, they call LSC. To protect the privacy of homes, masking software is used to place blackout bars over windows.

“There are two modes of surveillance as a form of social control,” Ben Brock Johnson, the host of Codebreaker, a podcast produced by Marketplace and Business Insider, said in an episode on Lancaster’s surveillance network, “the kind where the people being watched don’t know they’re being watched and the kind where knowing you’re being watched is part of the plan.” Everybody in Lancaster knows they’re being watched and moderates their actions when in public; the control of behavior, the loss of trust, is the price they pay for safety. Former mayor Charlie Smithgall tells Johnson that the camera system is, “a good witness.”

Studies show surveillance does not deter crime. Experts say cameras erode public trust. LSC’s budget is about $420,000 a year. That amount of money, redirected, could put another eleven or twelve police officers on the streets.

So why do Lancastrians love their cameras? Why do they “adopt a camera” to fund and maintain, petition for cameras on more corners, ask LSC to watch their children on camera as they walk to and from school? Why do they even install their own cameras and register them with Lancaster City’s Bureau of Police? Maybe it’s because support for the cameras is like virtue signaling: If you don’t mind being watched, it must mean you have nothing to hide.


On May 23, 2018, at about 3:45 a.m., someone set fire to the front doors of Lancaster’s City Hall and a nearby municipal vehicle. City Hall has no surveillance cameras, so the police immediately contacted LSC to see what it had recorded. When asked at a press conference if she believed the fires were “related to a contentious city council meeting” Tuesday night, the city’s new mayor, Danene Sorace, said she was waiting for the results of the investigation, but that, “We will not be bullied.”

The city council meeting had been “contentious” because inspectors had targeted a landlord the week before, raiding ten of his properties; one had been condemned, seven others had received code violations. Dwain London, Sr., his son, Dwain London Jr., and more than a dozen tenants claimed the city was targeting them—race and class were implicated. The Londons are black; their tenants are low-income. The Londons are charged with, among other violations, breaking the city’s law against “shared” rentals: No more than three unrelated people can live in one residence together. But tenants claim that London rented to them when no one else in the city would, and at rates that they could afford. They say London saved them from homelessness, gave them the continuity—a home—necessary to get out of drug addiction.

A few days later, Dwain Jr., twenty-nine, and a York County man, Patrick Baker, eighteen, were charged with arson, terrorism, reckless burning or exploding, institutional vandalism, and criminal conspiracy to terrorism and held on $2 million bail. Lancaster Safety Coalition’s footage helped prove that Dwain Jr. had stopped at a Turkey Hill to fill up a red gas can on the morning of May 23. London picked up Baker, and paid him forty dollars to set light to city hall. Once again the surveillance cameras had helped bring justice to the city.

I met Israel on the corner of South Prince and Farnum Streets on my way back to my car. He was smoking a cigarette with two colleagues, volunteers at the Water Street Mission. When I asked them if they knew they were standing under a surveillance camera, they nodded yes and waved their hands at it like they were shooing a fly. “Privacy is in the constitution,” Israel told me, and the cameras violate that right. Israel meant the Fourth Amendment. But privacy isn’t explicitly mentioned, only inferred. Or as Justice Louis Brandeis put it, “the right most valued by civilized men” is the “right to be let alone.”


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