Back in December, I wrote a commentary questioning the sacrifice of privacy in favor of surveillance, the appearance of safety.
The council in December was willing to expand the use of public surveillance of parking lots under the guise of security and concern about car break-ins.
Mayor Brett Lee said, “I’m supportive of having cameras. The key with cameras is the policy surrounding their use. I’m very supportive of having cameras physically there.”
He said, “The idea here is not to catch someone from breaking into a car, it’s to discourage someone from (it)—it’s prevention.”
Councilmember Dan Carson said, “I’m supportive of going through our normal process of evaluating surveillance technology both to look at the cameras and I am interested in learning about the license plate readers.”
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs said, “The issue of increased use of cameras, I share the same concerns about the parameters around them, but I think personally… there’s a lot of concern (about crime).”
When I expressed my concerns about the utility, cost and use of this technology, I was assured that the Police Accountability Commission would review the policy and help develop an appropriate use policy.
Well, that indeed happened. But the commission voted 8-0 last week to oppose the cameras.
I found it very interesting that the staff report in effect buries the lead.
The first reference to the Police Accountability Commission was that their February meeting was cancelled due to lack of quorum.
Then on page five of the staff report: “The Police Accountability Commission was unable to take up the item in February due to lack of a quorum, so they discussed the item at their March 2 meeting. A summary of their discussion has been included as Attachment 3.”
You have to actually go to the attachments of the staff report, attachment three, to learn that the commission actually opposed the cameras.
In the memo from Assistant City Manager Kelly Stachowicz to Chief Pytel and City Manager Mike Webb, Ms. Stachowicz notes that the PAC “discussed the Accurint Virtual Crime Center and Safety Cameras/License Plate Readers, two types of surveillance technology tools the Police Department has proposed to the Council to address crime concerns.”
The report notes that five members of the public spoke during that meeting on surveillance technology and “four were not supportive of its use” while “one asked for caution and adequate safeguards.”
It is not until page 25 of the 25-page staff report that we finally learn that the commission that the council represented as being the safeguard to this technology “did not support the use of fixed cameras with license plate readers.”
Concerns included: cost, investment to maintain the data, and it being stealth surveillance and intrusion on privacy.
The commission supported the use of portable remote cameras with highest resolution and quality possibility, “but not with fixed cameras or license plate readers (with fixed cameras).”
The notes continue: “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.”
The motion passed unanimously, 8-0.
I have two concerns here. One is the fact that the PAC is supposed to be an advisory and oversight body, and yet its recommendations are buried at the very end of the report in the supplemental notes that most will not read. The police chief who presumably wrote this report could have referenced their opposition in the body of the staff report and didn’t. This seems highly deceptive.
Second, the policy itself seems rather problematic.
Staff notes: “Fixed-cameras with ALPR technology provide the greatest law enforcement/investigative solution for electronic area monitoring. However, the initial and on-going costs for a robust program are quite high.”
Staff writes: Cameras placed in strategic locations would serve several purposes: (1) to provide the Police Department with valuable leads to solve crimes committed in the City by monitoring traffic in areas where motorists would enter or exit Davis; (2) to deter criminal activity by making it known we use such technology to solve crimes.”
The staff report notes: “All recorded video images gathered by the cameras are for the official use of the Davis Police Department. Requests for recorded video images from the public or the media shall be processed in the same manner as requests for Department public records.”
For the most part, that would leave the data inaccessible to the public.
In terms of audit and oversight: “Use of these cameras for criminal investigations is documented in a police report. A member is subject to discipline for unauthorized use or misuse.”
The police chief would “conduct an annual review of the camera system. The review should include an analysis of the cost, benefit and effectiveness of the system, including any public safety issues that were effectively addressed or any significant prosecutions that resulted, and any systemic operational or administrative issues that were identified, including those related to training, discipline or policy.
“The results of each review shall be appropriately documented and maintained by the Police Chief or the authorized designee and other applicable advisory bodies.”
I will go back to several points I made in December.
The first problem—there is no evidence that video surveillance is effective. That was a strange omission from the discussion. If we are going to give up privacy, we should have evidence that the cure will work.
To date, there has been no representation or presentation by the police chief that this stuff works to deter or catch crime. No study has been presented.
As noted before, the quality of the video really varies, but I have rarely watched surveillance footage that can independently identify a perpetrator. Usually and at best it will show conduct by an already identified individual rather than allowing the police to catch someone that they had not identified before.
So if you have a known suspect, the video surveillance can work rather well in showing what they did. It does not work particularly well in showing who did.
Why? Lighting is a big problem. Resolution of the camera is a huge problem. Angles are another problem.
The ACLU, in objecting to using cameras for potential terrorist subjects notes, “The real reason cameras are usually deployed is to reduce much pettier crimes.” They find that “it has not even been demonstrated that they can do that.”
It is ripe for abuse. The ACLU notes: “One problem with creating such a powerful surveillance system is that experience tells us it will inevitably be abused.”
The use policy is fine. But it relies on the police chief to audit the report, and we already see a case where the chief is burying the opposition to the policy. Moreover, we don’t know what we don’t know. The use policy is not going to prevent abuse and we probably will not find out about it until well after the fact.
I think we should follow the recommendation of the PAC here, but I think we need to ask for more assurance and documentation that the cost and impact presented here are actually likely to produce results.
There are wo conclusions from the ACLU.
The ACLU warns: “The growing presence of public cameras will bring subtle but profound changes to the character of our public spaces. When citizens are being watched by the authorities – or aware they might be watched at any time – they are more self-conscious and less free-wheeling.”
The ACLU concludes: “Like any intrusive technology, the benefits of deploying public video cameras must be balanced against the costs and dangers. This technology (a) has the potential to change the core experience of going out in public in America because of its chilling effect on citizens, (b) carries very real dangers of abuse and ;mission creep,’ and (c) would not significantly protect us against terrorism (or even petty crime).”
—David M. Greenwald reporting