Privacy vs. safe streets a hard choice

I had a tough argument with a friend who was incensed that our local police had placed traffic cameras at major intersections. He felt that the authorities were running surveillance on innocent citizens. I countered that if police officers sitting in their cars observed drivers going through red lights, would he consider that intrusive spying? Of course not.

So what really is the difference? Is it less private to have a camera catching people running red lights than a police officer? Less personal, perhaps, but in terms of public safety, every bit as effective.

Now, a speed camera recently caught me going above the speed limit. The town sent me a computer-generated letter with a picture of me — or, rather, my car — along with information on my speed at the time. I did feel a twinge of resentment because the speed limit on that road is so low, it could well be a speed trap.

But whether I was right or wrong, I sucked up the charge and sent city hall a check for my lawlessness. After all, I’m often a pedestrian crossing that road, as are my neighbors. Advances in electronic surveillance have made our lives less private, perhaps, but also safer.

Americans have a fascination with serial killers, psychopaths with no conscience. They can also be clever, even educated, and thrive on confounding law enforcement. They imagine they are perpetrating the perfect crime.

But apparently there are far fewer of them these days, because for all their meticulous planning, they get caught. Rex Heuermann, the alleged killer of several women on Long Island’s Gilgo Beach, is one. He was captured decades after many of his crimes, thanks to modern surveillance techniques.

On the surface, Heuermann was a bland suburban husband and father who worked as an architectural consultant in Manhattan. His company had videos of him amiably explaining his profession. Heuermann apparently thought he was smart contacting victims from burner phones, mobile phones that can be bought and used anonymously. He wrapped the women’s bodies in camouflage burlap before burying them a good distance from his home.

But nowadays, there are digital surveillance tools and technology that can analyze mile-high piles of data. And detectives can link suspicious internet queries made by killers even on anonymous accounts, to criminals. Heuermann asked, “Why could law enforcement not trace the calls made by the Long Island serial killer?”

DNA evidence can implicate someone who never had his DNA checked but whose close relatives have. And, of course, there are cameras everywhere. Someone roaming Long Island’s popular beach areas today would certainly be caught on one.

That’s why people who commit serious crimes on New York’s subways are almost always captured within 24 hours. Their pictures go out on TV, social media and posters. And they are identified even if they were wearing a face mask and sunglasses at the time.

The 19th Precinct’s Facebook page recently posted pictures of a guy who stole $3,000 worth of property and specified where the crime took place. His likeness was captured from three angles. Wedding portraits aren’t that precise.

Because it’s become so hard to hide, serial killers seem less willing to try their dark-of-night atrocities. As a result, there were only 12 known serial killers and 44 victims in 2018, according to researchers. In 1987, by contrast, there were 198 known active serial killers connected to at least 404 known victims.

Is the ability to catch these monsters worth the ability to ticket someone driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone? I think so. Surveillance can be used for evil, but so can steak knives. It has to be regulated. Bring on the cameras.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.