Over vocal opposition from residents, the City Council on Wednesday passed a resolution accepting increased funding for camera surveillance across Binghamton.

The resolution was first presented to the council by Deputy Mayor Megan Heiman and Ryan Wood, a Binghamton City Police investigator who works out of the Southern Tier Crime Analysis Center, at a May 6 work session. It accepts funding from the Office of the District Attorney’s Traffic Diversion Program to install cameras in “high crime areas,” according to its executive summary.

After passionate public comment opposing the resolution at a June 5 meeting, the council neither accepted nor rejected the funding. Three weeks later at the council’s June 26 meeting, however, it was put up for a vote. Councilman Olamni Porter of the first district was the only member to vote no — responding “hell no” when the clerk called his name — while Councilman Robert Cavanaugh II, who represents the third district, was absent.

Councilman Nate Hotchkiss told Pipe Dream that despite his decision to vote for the resolution’s passing, he agreed with many of the hesitations expressed by residents.

“I share all the concerns that were raised regarding the growth of mass surveillance in discussion of this legislation, much of which I myself articulated at Wednesday night’s meeting,” Hotchkiss wrote. “I strongly oppose this being our only intervention in high crime areas, most of which represent areas of extreme poverty and marginalized groups. We will never police people out of poverty.”

Advocating for more comprehensive youth services and programming to address root causes of crime, Hotchkiss said his decision ultimately came from speaking with residents, who he said were mostly in favor of more cameras because they were the only solution offered.

“They’ll take something over nothing,” Hotchkiss added.

Mike Bess, a Binghamton resident who spoke at the June 5 meeting, said the public opposition to the funding may have initially discouraged councilmembers from sponsoring the resolution.

“I believe that what our city, county and state governments are doing is building the foundations for civil rights violations at a massive scale,” Bess wrote in an email. “24/7 mass surveillance on a block by block, street corner to street corner level treats everyone who lives, travels, works, and socializes in these watched zones like a criminal.”

He said there were similarities between the proposed legislation and other policies, like stop and frisk, where Black and working-class people tend to be disproportionately targeted. In criticizing these policies, Bess said the expansion of surveillance systems is “that it seems like the goal is to eventually watch everyone.”

Binghamton Mayor Jared Kraham has voiced support for the legislation, emphasizing its importance as an investigative and public safety tool.

“This funding would support critical public safety upgrades in some of the highest-crime areas in Broome County,” Kraham wrote in a statement. “Residents deserve these kinds of investments in the 21st century tools and technology that deter crime, bring justice to victims and their families, and keep neighborhoods safe. Cameras are one of the most effective tools available to law enforcement to help solve and combat crime.”

Many residents’ apprehension centered around a lack of transparency from the city. Bill Martin, a Johnson City resident and a retired Binghamton University professor of sociology who also addressed the council said the footage taken on these surveillance cameras is largely unaccounted for. Fliers distributed during last week’s Juneteenth community gathering read, “Why are they always watching us? It’s not about safety — it’s about control.”

Those seeking abortions face certain dangers from heightened surveillance, especially when traveling out of state, Martin added. Residents have also harbored concerns about increased civil rights violations that may arise due to expanded surveillance. With much debate on mass surveillance still pending, Martin said a step forward would be to pass legislation restricting access to the gathered data.

On a larger scale, the Broome County Legislature is also considering funding for similar initiatives. A resolution introduced during the legislature’s June 20 meeting would authorize the sheriff to accept a $834,118 grant from the state to purchase computer equipment and software.

In a letter to Legislator Pam Ryan, Martin urged her to advocate for a moratorium on additional surveillance infrastructure in the county. Citing a 2023 policy brief from the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, he said recent studies about automatic license plate readers show that they are often misread, which can lead to violent arrests of innocent individuals. He added that an open goal of Flock Safety, the cameras’ manufacturer, is to “complete a shared national database accessible around the country.”

Mentioning the Gaza Solidarity Encampment established at BU in May, Martin said there is growing uncertainty about how the student demonstrators were identified by University surveillance.

“Students should be particularly concerned because the observation of student movements is exceedingly dense and close,” Martin said. “You go in, you buy something at Jazzman’s and you’re photographed. You go into your dorm or you swipe, you’re photographed. You’re tracked.”

Editor’s Note (6/30/24): A previous version of this article did not include details about the City Council’s vote on the resolution. It was passed 5-1, with one absence, on Wednesday night. The article has been updated to include all relevant details.