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Sick of police surveillance, California town fights back

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Fed up with unwarranted spying by police, residents of Oakland, California are fighting back by developing the first enforceable city legislation to regulate the purchase and use of surveillance equipment by law enforcement agencies.

If approved, the legislation could make Oakland a national trailblazer for privacy rights campaigners alarmed at the rise of cameras, “stingrays” and other surveillance technologies used by law enforcement.

Activists are hopeful that in the coming months the city council and mayor’s office will appoint members of a privacy advisory committee to draft a city ordinance on surveillance. They say this will be a big win for residents and a significant change from 2013, when the Oakland police, fire and port officials proposed to use m in federal grant money to expand a surveillance program from the port of Oakland to the entire city.

Brian Hofer, a former civil rights lawyer and Oakland resident, said the latest moves were “much awaited”.

Commenting on events two years ago, he said: “This was shortly after the Occupy Oakland movement in 2012 and in 2013; the city’s plan was to link more than 700 surveillance cameras throughout the city, license plate readers [LPRs], shot spotters and other surveillance equipment into a system where law enforcement could have consistent and real-time access to the data.”

In 2013, Oakland reported almost 8,000 violent crimes for a population of close to 404,000, according to FBI statistics. That was the second-highest such total in California, with Los Angeles reporting almost 16,500 such crimes, in a population of 3.9 million.

Hofer, however, said more surveillance would not lower the crime rate.

“That’s usually the justification law enforcement give us for wanting to increase surveillance programs in the city,” he said. According to data from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 40 out of 58 California counties and had some sort of surveillance technology in 2014.

The DAC policy was a precursor to the wider surveillance ordinance, said Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU of northern California. Cagle said the process of making residents aware of the DAC and convincing them to protest its expansion led to a list of seven recommendations, one of which was to establish a permanent advisory committee to review requests from law enforcement agencies prior to the purchase and use of all surveillance equipment.

“What’s significant here is that the new ordinance will cover all surveillance equipment regardless of whether it was paid by federal, state, local, or private funds, and [it] will cover all new models of technologies,” said Cagle, who said the ordinance would be based on a version developed by his organisation.

Hofer said he will push for Oakland to have the strongest surveillance ordinance in the country and allow people who believe that they have been unnecessarily monitored or harmed by law enforcement surveillance activities to take the issue to court, request that the surveillance be stopped, and get their costs covered if they win their cases. This is called injunctive relief – Cagle and Hofer say it empowers citizens to fight back.

“Once the citywide ordinance passes, we can go back and develop strong use policies for stingrays and license plate readers, which Oakland police already use,” said Hofer, who is currently working on a use policy for a new infrared thermal imaging camera system (FLIR) that the Oakland police and fire departments want to buy for helicopter use.

“The public debate that the surveillance ordinance will require on new technologies and their uses will be beneficial for everyone, including city officials, to help them learn more about how these programs work and what they mean to the public,” said Joe DeVries, Oakland’s assistant to the city administrator.

However, the ordinance’s effectiveness is limited according to what the law enforcement agencies decide to disclose in their annual reports to the public and the city council.

“I do worry about what the police decide not to report to the privacy committee and as part of the new ordinance,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

“It’s a good start, but it will still require a lot of resources and due diligence on the part of the public to hold law enforcement agencies accountable,” she said.

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  • Jeffrey

    I’d be happy to be the leader of the privacy advisory committee,
    just give us 3 million to do the study, we’ll go to starbucks for an hour,
    write up a bunch of stuff and give it back to you in three months,
    that’s if we can still find it under all the piles of paperwork. 😀

  • Bruce Brown

    Even if it passes it will hardly be a national trailblazer. California, particularly Oakland and vicinity are like no other places in America. What happens there, in most cases, would never catch on elsewhere.

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