Friday, March 30, 2007

The Chicago Robber on Video

There is a robber in Chicago who has been going around robbing small stores. He waits till the store is free of customers and then walks in, engages in small talk and then pulls out a garden variety steak knife. A cleanout of the cash counter at knife-point ensues.

What’s interesting about all of this is that while the man has been going about doing his business, the security cameras have gotten oodles of videos of him.

Now these videos are better than those you get out of the convenience stores or parking lots. But I still couldn’t identify the man if he walked past me.
Where is all that terrific image processing technology that was making its way into homeland security when you need it?

All I can say after looking at these is that he is African-American, has some facial hair and is barrel-chested. Of course the police are hoping someone who knows this guy actually recognizes him. They are crossing their fingers for a "Hey, isn't that uncle Al? I gotta call the cops – he never did return my MacGyver DVD," type of fortune.

The police have extrapolated some more of course. He is about 30 years old, approximately 160 lbs and 5ft 7in. He also carries a navy blue backpack around.

But it worries me that a number of us have to carry this image in our mind. The notion of "other" is so strong that I can imagine people stiffening every time a stocky black person walks into the store.

This gut reaction against anyone perceived as a minority can get to work in uncomfortable ways. For example, it had security harassing people in a turban after 9/11. In fact, the first casualty outside the attacks was a Sikh at a convenience store.

And this can also work in reverse. Timothy McVeigh's convinction in the Oklahoma Bombings in 1995 didn't lead to a nationwide crackdown on white boys with flat-tops.

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