US city seeks control over law enforcement surveillance

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

July 17, 2015

In a seemingly unlikely location in the US, local government is pushing back against law enforcement’s pervasive use of sophisticated surveillance equipment. Fed up with unwarranted spying by police, residents of Oakland California are backing legislation which may sound the clarion call nationwide against controversial spying embodied in the use of Stingrays, among other devices. That this should take place in a city with more than 8,000 violent crimes per year in a population of 400,000 reveals just how obnoxious and ubiquitous police surveillance has become.

The outcry against surveillance stems the police attempt to expand their surveillance protocols from the vulnerable, crime-ridden port area to the city at large. This propelled privacy activists into action, who are hoping their campaign will staunch the creep of surveillance highlighted by the thousands of cameras, license-plate readers (LPR’s), shot spotters and other intrusive technologies.

Should Oakland pass the anti-surveillance legislation in the coming months, campaigners say they will be at the vanguard of efforts to combat federal government encroachment into the state and municipal domain.

Police have long desired the ability to have real-time surveillance capabilities and claim that it would lower the crime rate, which on a per capita basis is the highest in the state, and near the head of the list nationally. However, detractors such as Brian Hofer, former civil rights lawyer and Oakland resident who offered,

“That’s usually the justification law enforcement give us for wanting to increase surveillance programs in the city.

 Hofer served as a member of a temporary advisory committee on unwarranted surveillance, and is hopeful that his efforts and the efforts of those like him will lead to the creation of a permanent advisory committee to review law enforcement requests prior to the purchase of all surveillance equipment.

Heretofore, a sticking point has always been that local law enforcement could circumvent municipal oversight due to federal funding of purchases. As we already know , law enforcement also operated beyond the scope of judicial oversight by not disclosing operational procedures on warrant requests.

Hofer’s aim is to have the strongest surveillance laws in the country, which would grant citizens redress if they felt their privacy rights were jeopardized by unseemly police tactics such as excessive monitoring, and to have their court costs covered if they are successful (injunctive relief).

The need for such action on the local level is more imperative given the gridlock at the federal level in Congress. Citing one city, Seattle, Washington, as a city taking affirmative, anti-surveillance steps, activists warn that these didn’t go far enough- only covering certain equipment, and offering no injunctive relief.

The usual caveats, however, are attendant the establishment of any such laws- namely that they are only as strong as the level of cooperation and compliance that accompany them. In this case, the ordinance’s effectiveness can be mitigated by inadequate disclosure by police in their reports to the public and the city council. As Zabra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), notes

I do worry about what the police decide not to report to the privacy committee and as part of the new ordinance.  It’s a good start, but it will require a lot of resources and due diligence on the part of the public to hold law enforcement agencies accountable.

The move by Oakland, and to a lesser extent, Seattle, portend the promise of a turn in the Washington tide of more surveillance and less liberty- a perilous current that has proved difficult to swim against, and which has  spanned two presidential administrations.

It nevertheless represents a valiant, important attempt for localities to regain some semblance of governance over an out-of -control encroachment of surveillance technology driven by deep federal dollars, and a voracious appetite for control and power by the federal government.

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