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Will Surveillance Cameras Stop Wage Theft?

Business owners and police want surveillance cameras to stop crime downtown. Their moral crusade against crime probably won’t stop wage theft.

By Will Meyer

Police Chief Jody Kasper hosted a community meeting in September to introduce what would become a controversial and polarizing proposal: to install police operated “surveillance cameras” in downtown Northampton. In her presentation she told the community that “since we’re the police, we always plan for horrible things that can happen.” She then offered a terrorist attack as an example of one of these horrible things. A bullet point in the “current conditions in downtown” slide of her PowerPoint described the following (incoherent) threat: “Increase in mass casualty threats and terrorism events around the world and Main Street/downtown is the area that contains the highest concentration of pedestrians, particularly during large events.” The idea that Northampton’s Hot Chocolate Run—an example cited at the event—would be a terrorist target wasn’t further explored.

After invoking terrorism, Kasper didn’t waste any time pivoting to the real issue on her mind: crime. And as soon as she mentioned crime, she pointed attending community members towards the example of theft and shoplifting to consider as a significant problem before talking about other types of crimes. Which is odd, because according to her data (see below), theft/larceny/shoplifting is down, but harassment/stalking and disturbance/domestic abuse is up.

Before Chief Kasper brought her surveillance camera proposal to the community in September, she brought it to the Downtown Northampton Association in May to get their feedback on the idea.

The DNA, according to their website, works with the Northampton Chamber of Commerce and the City of Northampton to “improve the business and cultural strength of Downtown Northampton through investments in programming, beautification, and advocacy.” Some of their “platinum partners” (who have donated more than $10,000 to the organization) include Smith College, Coca-Cola, TD Bank, and Thornes Marketplace. Other partners include Florence Bank, Greenfield Cooperative Bank, State Street Fruit Store, Northampton Brewery, and many more.

Although we don’t know who was at this meeting in May, we do know what they talked about. Suzanne Beck, director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, told Mass Live that business owners’ expressed concerns about “theft, shoplifting, and other crimes” to Chief Kasper. However, one form of theft, wage theft–when employers steal from their employees wages–was not discussed at the meeting, according to an email to The Shoestring from Chief Kasper.

[Update: In another email to The Shoestring, Chief Kasper confirmed that in May when she spoke with the DNA about cameras she didn’t meet with workers at that time, saying: “I did not have any meeting specific to workers and about cameras in May.”]

That said, wage theft is a pervasive issue both in Northampton and around the country. Data compiled by the Wage Authority Group shows that, nationally, as much as $50 billion dollars is stolen through wage theft every year, compared with only $14 billion for larceny, burglary, auto-theft and robbery combined.

A 2016 study conducted between March 2014 and March 2016 by the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and the University of Massachusetts Labor Center found that 65% of 235 workers who were surveyed in Northampton weren’t paid overtime. That is approximately 153 people whose wages had been stolen. And for comparison, according to the numbers Kasper provided in her presentation, there were 155 calls for theft, larceny, or shoplifting in 2016, the same year the study was published. The same study also found that 22% of respondents had worked off the clock, more than 75% weren’t paid a “living wage,” and as many as 95% didn’t receive (or necessarily know about) paid sick leave, a benefit that is required by law. The study also found that nearly a quarter of respondents had experienced sexual harassment and/or discrimination due to their race or immigration status.

In addition to that study, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office has publically available records of complaints against employers in the Commonwealth. There is a backlog of complaints that have yet to be investigated, thirty-seven of which are against Northampton businesses. At least one business, Servicenet, is a “bronze partner” of the DNA and also has two pending employee complaints on record with the Attorney General’s Office.

What is strange about the disregard for wage theft from people like Beck and Kasper is that they’ve framed their case for surveillance cameras as a moral crusade against theft and harassment—crimes that are frequently carried out against workers by employers downtown. Beck, for instance, framed the issue to Mass Live around “find[ing] common ground around a really simple question.” Asking: “Do we want to hold people accountable for the crimes they commit?”

Beck then followed that by asking: “How far should we go to identify and prosecute the people that are making the crimes?” So The Shoestring sent her an email asking if she’d support a proposal to put police cameras in the offices of business owners to monitor them and make sure they don’t make the wage theft. Beck didn’t comment on the question.

Of course surveillance cameras won’t do much to stop wage theft. Kasper suggested as much in her email to The Shoestring. But by bringing wage theft into the conversation about cameras, we can poke a big hole in the business owners’ and police’s moral commitment to “stopping crime” downtown.

The Northampton city council will have their final vote on the camera ordinance this Thursday, December 7 at 7pm in the building behind city hall. Please come and fill the chamber. Maybe tell your counselor to read this article beforehand.

Correction: 12/06/2017: All instances referencing the Downtown Business Association (DBA) have been replaced with the proper nomenclature, the Downtown Northampton Association (DNA).

Will Meyer is an editor of The Shoestring. He is a columnist for The Valley Advocate and has written in many publications such as The Media, Jacobin, and The Baffler. If you like this article, please donate to The Shoestring on Patreon.

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