The Downey City Council in its infinite wisdom has voted to place six surveillance cameras in Furman Park by July 1, followed by more cameras throughout the Downey park system.
From a city staff report recommending purchase of the cameras: “The installation of security cameras will help deter graffiti and serve as an additional tool for the Downey Police Department to further park safety.”
If that were all, and considering the cascade of lunatic violence that pours into our living rooms with the nightly news, you just might be willing to make a grudging concession to the oppressive reality of having your every move under surveillance.
A lot of people do, hence the ubiquitous doorbell and traffic cameras. You might, that is, if it were not for this: once the system goes into operation, every second of footage can be remotely accessed by the Downey police.
That changes things, and is symptomatic of how poorly the city council deliberates on complex issues when they have larger social and moral implications. Who does not revere freedom of movement? The nation’s dynamic establishment and growth, particularly in the 19th century notion of Manifest Destiny, are partly based on it.
“Don’t Fence Me In” is more than a western song, it is a reply to expanding urban space in a limited American frontier. The park, moreover, is not just a place to walk, play baseball, T-ball, soccer, tennis, basketball or pickleball, and cuddle with your baby in the peace of a balmy day. It is the place where, as Walt Whitman put it, “I loafe and invite my soul.” It is where you escape the world that’s too much with us. In a word, it’s not just an exercise of freedom, it is an exercise in freedom.
Is Furman Park and the rest of the Downey Park system a hotbed of violent crime? Is it so demonstrably infested with gang predation that only a Kremlin-style presence of authority can weed out the bad guys? If so, why haven’t we heard about it? Who benefits from the $44,651 fee for the installation and maintenance of the system (BTI Communications of Santa Fe Springs, the supplier of the cameras, thanks the City of Downey for its support).
The deeper question here however is one we have not been asking, and whose time may be approaching: Is it wise to expand the power of the Downey police?
The Downey Police Department is very good. The violent crime rate in Downey compared to adjacent cities like Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Bellflower and Norwalk, is considerably lower—313.4 per 100,000 citizens, per a 2019 FBI report. Paramount’s violent crime rate is roughly twice as high as Downey’s. Downey cops as a rule are well-trained, skilled, effective, professionally courteous, knowledgeable, good at their jobs and responsive.
This is a tough standard to maintain, considering how often they, like any cop, must deal with the unspeakable worst of humanity: psychopaths, druggies, people in the throes of complete breakdown. Not to mention how often they themselves are under attack. We often forget that we do not see what they have to see on a regular basis
But law enforcement agencies at every level and in virtually every municipality have benefited from a large influx of Defense Department surplus equipment. What has happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor is only the result of what power does to people who are flush with it from the addition of military-grade weaponry. Closer to home, we’ve already seen reports of deputy gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The January 6 attack on the nation’s capitol even enjoyed support from some elements within law enforcement.
The only recent incident of fatal, or at least egregious, police violence in Downey I know of occurred on October 22, 2011, when a Downey police officer fatally shot Michael Nida, a father of four, with a submachine gun, mistaking him for a bank robbery suspect. The Downey police claimed that Nida reached into his waistband and provoked the shooting, but the coroner’s report revealed bullet holes in Nida’s back. The city wound up settling with Nida’s family for $4.5 million. The police officer who killed Nida was cleared of all charges by the Los Angeles County District Attorney.
So far and since, the Downey police appear to be as exemplary as every establishment figure in the city says it is. The city’s police department has drones, rifles, machine guns, tear gas canisters and whiz bang devices. We know that the $319,000 armored personnel carrier known as the BearCat is now in service if needed, even if there was no one in the city trained to operate it on delivery.
It is universally understood that power corrupts. It is also a universal principle that life is a process of endless change. After July 1, a walk in the park will never be the same for those of us who live in Downey. For that reason, there is nothing wrong with wanting to take a look at the people who will now look at us.
Lawrence Christon is a former award-winning staff writer for The Los Angeles Times. He was born and raised in New York City, and served honorably in the United States Marine Corps. He has lived in Downey for decades.