Sunday Commentary: Staff Pushing for New Cameras over Objections from Police Accountability Commission

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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.

Despite this, staff—in this case Chief of Police Darren Pytel and Deputy Police Chief Paul Doroshov—continue to support purchasing the system which could range in cost from $10,000 to $2.2 million.

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


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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19 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Staff Pushing for New Cameras over Objections from Police Accountability Commission”

  1. Keith Olsen

    If the ACLU is against it then I’m all for it.  Why would any law abiding person be against cameras in their public areas which would add to their safety?

    To date, there has been no representation or presentation by the police chief that this stuff works to deter or catch crime.

    I’ve seen hundreds of instances where stationed camera footage has caught crime leading to arrest.  Also if perps know that they might under surveillance they’re less likely to act.

    Despite this, staff—in this case Chief of Police Darren Pytel and Deputy Police Chief Paul Doroshov—continue to support purchasing the system which could range in cost from $10,000 to $2.2 million.

    That’s quite a range there.  I have to believe that the actual figure is going to be much closer to the $10,000 sum.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      The staff report said each camera is $10,000 and those are the mobile, not the fixed ones. I think the range depends on number and type.

      In terms of your first point: “Why would any law abiding person be against cameras in their public areas which would add to their safety?”

      1. Misidentification – the biggest problem with technology is that it’s only as good as your ability to identify the people on camera. They have facial recognition software which is iffy. I know for instance on Facebook, their software always identifies my daughter as my aunt. It’s funny on Facebook, less funny if that is used as part of prosecution.

      2. Circumstantial evidence – often a camera will not show the crime, it will show someone passing through an area at a certain time. It might then be used to present someone as being in the area who had nothing to do with the crime.

      3. Misconstruing evidence – the camera might show something or appear to show something that actually didn’t occur

      4. Poor quality / bad angles / bad lighting – the record might be incomplete – that can sometimes hurt the accused, especially the innocent who are accused

      5. Cameras are not limited to criminal activity of course and might be used against someone in a non-criminal capacity

      In addition there is the general possibility of misuse by authorities and an overall privacy concern of government monitoring the activities of law abiding citizens for illegal means without proper safeguards.

      1. Keith Olsen

        So if you have 100 instances of a crime being detected by cameras where it led to the arrest of the perp or the saving of an abducted child we shouldn’t use them because of that one case where someone might be misidentified? And if all the problems that you outline are the case why do you advocate for cameras on cops?

         

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          Which leads to the question: what are the data with respect to that? None has been presented to the council.

          In terms of the cameras for police officers, the ACLU on the whole supported cameras for police but wanted the use proscribed. For the most part the problem with cameras has been (A) the angles are not conclusive, (B) problems occur off-camera, and (C) cameras “inconveniently” malfunction or turnoff at critical moments.

          I don’t have as much problem with police cameras because of the limited use and duration of the video and the fact that the cop needs to authenticate the video in order to introduce it into court.

    2. Tia Will

      Keith

      Why would any law-abiding person be against cameras in their public areas which would add to their safety?

      You make the assumption that criminal behavior is all that is being observed. These technologies also make it possible to detect, record and save activity that is completely legal but disapproved of by the powers that be. Legal protests and marches are one example.

      Another example of legal behavior that one might not want to be recorded are patterns in one’s own behavior. I tend to take walks at around the same time daily, frequently covering much of the same route. I would just as soon this not be under observation. Although no longer an issue, I was concerned about stalking at one point as many women are.

      Finally, you make the assumption these cameras would add to our safety. I think the evidence for this benefit is inconclusive.

      1. Keith Olsen

        Finally, you make the assumption these cameras would add to our safety. I think the evidence for this benefit is inconclusive.

        If just one perp is caught because of these cameras then it’s added to your safety.

        Although no longer an issue, I was concerned about stalking at one point as many women are.

        I would think if a woman thought she was being stalked that camera footage of the stalker would be beneficial.

        It’s not like some cop is sitting behind a desk viewing through these cameras 24/7.  If a crime is committed or someone feels they’re being stalked law enforcement has the camera footage available as a tool to go to the time of the crime and possibly find some evidence.  How is that a bad thing?

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          “If just one perp is caught because of these cameras then it’s added to your safety.”

          Isn’t the opposite also true, if just one person is unfairly prosecuted because of these cameras isn’t it adding to the opposite?

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            You asked why a law abiding citizen should be concerned about the violation of their privacy and my answer is the potential for misuse by authorities. I have seen enough poor investigative work, bad assumptions, and piecing together of flimsy circumstantial evidence to give a cause for concern. But to answer your question – the difference would be that suspects have the right to remain silent when questioned by law enforcement but we now allow surreptitious recordings to de facto amount to a waiver of those rights. I worry about the consequences of doing that.

        2. Ron Oertel

           But to answer your question – the difference would be that suspects have the right to remain silent when questioned by law enforcement but we now allow surreptitious recordings to de facto amount to a waiver of those rights. I worry about the consequences of doing that.

          Seems to me that those are two different things.

  2. Bill Marshall

    So, you are opposed to red-light violation cameras…

    And, arguably, the private videos, which have no chain-of-custody provenance, showing things like the Picnic Day incident on Russell…

    And we know eye-witness accounts are ‘suspect’, and highly unreliable…

    So, that leaves ‘confessions’… but, no, those can be coerced… or possibly ‘false confessions” for other reasons…

    Guess we should remove cameras from ATM’s facing a public street… cameras in airports… etc.

    And, we should highly suspect any photo-journalism…

  3. Mark West

    When you have insufficient revenues to pay for all that your heart desires you need to prioritize. Is this proposal really the highest priority item for the City? If not, it should be withdrawn. If so, someone needs to explain why it is more important than repairing our infrastructure, paying down our unfunded obligations, or providing support for the homeless (to name just a few).

    1. Matt Williams

      Well said Mark!  Very well said.

      A healthy community needs to pay its bills.  Our community isn’t paying $13 million of its bills each and every year.  When you are not paying your existing bills, it doesn’t make sense to be running up new additional/incremental bills.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Good points you and Mark are making… the decision should be made on the economic basis, not privacy concerns nor crime prevention/enforcement.

        Funny how right decisions can be made for the wrong reasons…

        I have no problems with the cameras… but we don’t need them, and it is clear the affordability has been far from demonstrated as a financial or public health/safety priority.

        1. Keith Olsen

          So has the city cut services every time they’ve added things?

          Did the city eliminate any services when they took on the costs of the homeless shelter?

          Or filled new positions on city staff?

        2. Mark West

          No, Keith, we just spend money we don’t have and then claim we need to raise taxes again to pay for ‘all the services’ the people of Davis want.

  4. Eric Gelber

    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.

    Agree. But I find it difficult to believe that this issue has not been studied and that no evidence is available.

    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.

    That’s certainly a consideration and a factor to be weighed in a cost-benefit analysis. But even if it yields only corroborating evidence, is that not of value? Perhaps the reliance on video surveillance evidence should be limited to circumstances in which other direct or circumstantial evidence is available, except where the video evidence is indisputable.

    The reliability of technology is always an issue. But if guaranteed reliability were a condition on the use of evidence, eye witness statements would never be allowed.

  5. Keith Olsen

    I just watched documentary where a killer was found using several cameras from all over a town.  Some from stores, a gas station, a taxi and several city installed cameras were able to follow a killer as he stalked his victim.  Piecing all the camera footage together they were able to arrest and convict the perp.

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