Police oversight in Davis is about to receive its first real test. Police oversight already has a fairly interesting history in Davis. Back in 2005, Davis went through a series of high profile police complaints which led the Human Relations Commission to recommend a civilian review board.
This proved to be well ahead of its time, and the council settled for a compromise police ombudsman position, where a professional but independently contracted investigator looked into complaints against the police department.
The political rancor was elevated, however, which led in June 2006 to the police chief resigning and the city council voting 4-1 to abolish the Human Relations Commission.
Over time, the matter settled down until we reach 2017 and the Picnic Day incident. A few things happened about the same time. First, the police auditor (renamed from ombudsman) stepped down after 11 years on the job. Second, the Picnic Day incident shone light on the police chief, the handling of investigations, and the handling of a confrontation by the police themselves.
The council, after considerable community discussion and outreach, created a civilian review board that was ironically very similar in structure to the proposal by the Human Relations Commission from 2006 and combined that with the hiring of a new Independent Police Auditor position (IPA). The Davis Police Accountability Commission (DPAC) has been in place since last year and has mostly operated without incident.
The IPA has issued some reports already, with some interesting findings, but there has been little of controversy that has arisen—at least so far.
That may change this week.
As we noted in Sunday’s column, the Davis Police Chief back in December pushed for the council to approve the purchase of cameras at key points in the city. The council at that time approved the idea in concept, but sent it back to the DPAC for evaluation and help in drafting an appropriate use policy.
But it turns out that the DPAC voted the system down, on an 8-0 vote, as they moved: “That the City move forward with portable remote cameras with the highest resolution/quality possible but not with fixed cameras or license plate readers (with fixed cameras).”
The DPAC expressed their concerns at the meeting.
From the staff report notes: “While they have concerns about cameras, they realize that the Police Department needs some tools. With fixed cameras, the Commission is concerned about the overall policy use and the cost/benefit. The Commission is highly opposed to License Plate Readers (with fixed cameras). The Commission would like a clear use policy for the portable remote cameras.”
To me there are some key problems with this whole thing.
First, as I noted on Sunday, the police chief seems to want to hide the fact that the DPAC opposed the fixed cameras and license plate readers. As I noted before, the staff report mentions that DPAC looked into the issue, but only on the final page of a 25-page report, an attachment, in the first very last line, does it make clear that the DPAC opposed it. That’s troubling to say the least.
Second, and I didn’t raise this point strongly enough on Sunday, the staff report by the chief has cites no documentation, no studies, no authority to suggest that installing these cameras will make any difference.
He wants council to spend money on this stuff, but he gives them no reason to believe that the installation of cameras will reduce crime or even catch more potential criminals in the act.
Third, it fails to analyze drawbacks to the policy. The ACLU, for instance, has generally opposed such camera systems, but there is no mention of this or any other concerns. Nor does the chief, who wrote the staff report, assess the concerns that the DPAC had—that would have required him to acknowledge that they had those concerns.
The bottom line is that the staff report here really is inadequate. It fails to make the case for why we need these camera systems or to discuss ways to mitigate concerns.
And, yes, I remain concerned that we are giving up a lot of privacy in public areas to big brother government without a huge increase in safety.
I believe there are legitimate reasons for the typical member of the public to be concerned. There are those who will argue that law abiding citizens have nothing to fear. But we know from recent history that is not the case—look no further than partial and misread evidence in cases like Brandon Mayfield and the Central Park 5 to know the dangers of misused evidence and eyewitness misidentification.
Misidentification is a huge problem here. Even with high resolution cameras, angles and lighting are going to play a huge role. Facial recognition software remains problematic. Misidentification of someone could potentially put an innocent person into the legal system and then, who knows.
Circumstantial evidence—some of these cameras are going to be at the entrance to town—may show someone coming and leaving but we don’t know what happens in between. That could potentially draw suspicion to people who have done nothing wrong.
There is also the potential for evidence to be misconstrued. The camera may only suggest, it may not conclusively show something.
Furthermore, the problems of quality, lighting and angles could limit the overall utility of the camera.
All of those are, of course, assuming only good faith actors. But it may be that cameras will be misused by public officials. It is not clear that the auditing system is sufficient to safeguard against abuse. A big problem is that we will not know what we don’t know. That gives someone with nefarious intentions an opportunity to take advantage.
Is that likely to occur? No. But it does happen.
This will be an interesting test. The council created the DPAC to oversee the police department, they specifically asked the DPAC to weigh in on this—will they listen to the DPAC when perhaps the DPAC’s recommendations are inconvenient?
Time to find out how effective the DPAC can be.
—David M. Greenwald reporting