Tonawanda News

Bob Confer

February 7, 2011

CONFER: Police state in a small town

— — If you bring up police state issues in conversation, you’ll notice that, in most cases, people’s eyes glaze over. Besides being quick to sacrifice liberty for perceived security, most Americans think domestic spying is something that occurs only in places that supposedly rank high on terror cells’ lists of locales to exploit, like Manhattan. They believe that overzealous surveillance could never occur in their hometown.

That tired old way of thinking needs to be changed. In post-9/11 America, we have an over-reactive federal government that’s just chomping at the bit to dole out grants for counter-terrorism and general policing efforts and a plethora of municipalities that can’t say no to “free” money — no matter the actual, non-monetary cost to society.

Hornell couldn’t say “no.”

A lot of Western New Yorkers have passed through Hornell. Many more have just heard of the place. If you are of the latter group, Hornell is a very small city of 9,000 people (just a third larger than Medina) located in rural Steuben County. Its claim to fame is having produced Hollywood actor Bill Pullman. That’s how non-descript of a city it is, a comfortable, harmless little Southern Tier town.

It’s certainly not a breeding ground for terrorist activity, nor is it a criminal hotbed. Across the board, its crime statistics are far below the national average. Robberies are just 16 percent of the national average, while assaults are 70 percent, burglaries are 50 percent and auto thefts are 8 percent of the same.

Yet, for some reason, Hornell’s leaders found it necessary to apply for (and Uncle Sam was more than willing to give) a $197,000 grant that will be dedicated to stopping that muted crime wave. The police department will use that money to purchase a thermal imaging unit and an advanced digital camera with night vision — fancy technology for a modern day Mayberry.

That’s not the worst of it. The city plans to purchase 32 cameras that they will randomly station throughout the city. All are wireless and mobile and some come equipped with point, tilt and zoom capabilities. They will be monitored 24/7 at police headquarters and will focus, for now, on places like parks, schools and the downtown business district.

So, for the sake of fighting a criminal element that’s already nowhere to be found, the city fathers will look for crimes, maybe even invent them, by spying on the day-to-day goings on of its residents. With a lack of bad behavior to observe, the government’s eavesdroppers will have nothing to do but kill time watching innocent young lovers sharing a peck at the park or trusted business owners completing a transaction outside their storefront or property owners and their families enjoying their backyard swimming pool.

It’s true reality TV.

Most of us wouldn’t want to be such “TV stars;” we prefer to go about our daily lives free of Big Brother’s watchful eye and the thoughts that some unknown individual on the other end of a lens might be analyzing every move we make. We don’t deserve to be under such scrutiny, either. Community surveillance is in direct defiance of the unreasonable search and seizure clause of the Constitution, a document based on basic human rights. We should be allowed to move about freely without fear of our privacy being torn asunder.

Sadly, under these circumstances, the Hornell Police Department perceives everyone to be guilty until proven innocent. It’s nothing more than a large-scale TSA pat-down: Hornell residents who will be doing things that are completely harmless will be considered non-threatening only after a forceful and unwelcomed exploration of their private lives.

If Hornell is ripe for a police state, anywhere can be. What makes that community any different than, say, Lockport or Newfane or your community? Nothing, really. So, if you have that eerie feeling that someone is watching you, you’re probably right.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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Bob Confer