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Cities Fight Domestic Dragnet, Demand Local Police Disclose Use of Spy Gear

Eleven cities have introduced bills to enforce transparency in the use of surveillance tools by local police.

A police car with license plate reading cameras in New York on April 5, 2011.

After another round of police shootings this week of two Black men sparked an uprising in Charlotte, North Carolina, at least 11 cities announced the introduction of ordinances that would force transparency in local police departments’ acquisition and use of secretive surveillance technologies.

The bills include measures mandating that the acquisition and/or use of local police surveillance tools like “Stingray” cellphone tracking equipment, automated license plate readers, facial recognition technology and closed-circuit television cameras, among other surveillance tools, be explicitly approved by local city councils and subject to a public hearing process that would ensure public input in decisions that directly impact communities’ collective privacy and civil rights.

The effort is part of the “Community Control Over Police Surveillance” initiative, launched in partnership with a coalition of human and civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Network for Arab American Communities and the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, among others.

The 11 cities announcing legislative measures this week include D.C., New York City, Seattle, Richmond, Milwaukee and Miami Beach, among others. The groups are calling this week’s effort only the “first wave” of accountability-related reforms, and told reporters that the initiative is working with other cities to replicate the community control measures across the U.S.

“In Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Oakland, South Carolina, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Baton Rouge and now Charlotte, amongst other cities, Black communities are dying at the hands of those they pay to serve and protect,” said Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice during a press call. “Officers that kill are placed on administrative leave. They’re paid. They start ‘Go Fund Me’ pages to raise money [for themselves]. They’re rarely charged, even more rarely indicted and even more rarely convicted. Instead of being held accountable for the reckless endangerment and taking of Black lives, police departments are being rewarded, their budgets and their tool belts expanded with digital surveillance technologies.”

Intricate surveillance equipment originally developed for foreign battlefields by military and intelligence agencies and used by the federal government to monitor terrorism suspects has been making its way to Main Street for several years by way of federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security. Local police departments across the country often acquire sophisticated spy gear with little or no input from the public, elected officials or even judges.

“We are exploring legislation in New York City to give the public a meaningful opportunity to comment on the use of new surveillance technologies,” said Daniel Garodnick, a councilman for New York City’s 4th district, during a press call. “Additionally, when local governments are trying to decide how to spend limited resources, we should be able to evaluate whether any proposed expenditure, and that includes surveillance, is truly the most effective way to make our communities safer and stronger.”

Garodnick pointed to an ordinance adopted earlier this year in Santa Clara, California, limiting how and when police can acquire new surveillance technologies but said he is working to specifically tailor legislation in New York City to take into account the “unique challenges we face as the largest city in the country.” He hopes the result can serve as a model for other large cities looking to adopt similar community control measures.

The coalition also hopes its set of guiding principles can provide a model for community groups in putting forward measures to change surveillance practices. The principles generally advance democratic decision-making, transparency and community control over how local spy gear is funded, acquired and deployed.

Because the kinds of surveillance tools and police practices accompanying them are still emerging, data revealing larger patterns in how the gear is used are rare. But the coalition points to a few notable cases in Baltimore, Maryland; Oakland, California; and Lansing, Michigan, where data have shown a disproportionate use of surveillance technologies in communities of color and low-income areas.

“High-tech policing succeeds at only one thing: super-sizing discrimination against communities of color,” Cyril said. “Surveillance in the 21st century is primarily targeting local communities, primarily targeting communities of color, and yet this surveillance against Blacks, migrants, Muslims and the social movements that represent them has yet to see significant action by policymakers or federal regulators, and that’s why [we’re] committed … to build the legislative power of local communities to prevent high-tech racial profiling and policing from turning our neighborhoods into open-air prisons.”

Revelations in late August that the Baltimore Police Department used privately contracted surveillance technology to secretly monitor vast tracts of the city without a warrant sparked renewed concern by civil liberties advocates and attorneys, many of whom have said flatly that the police program is illegal. The program involves flying a small Cessna over a 32-square-mile swath of the city and recording the area. The video is then saved and can be analyzed at any particular point in time and space.

Similarly, the department’s use of Stingray cellphone tracking equipment was revealed last year. A Maryland court subsequently ruled that the use of the technology to obtain warrants in hundreds of cases was unconstitutional.

“This is not a new trend. Before there were Stingrays, there was stop-and-frisk,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology, and author of The Color of Surveillance. “Before that, you had the civil rights movement and its predecessors, … and there was a disproportionate impact of surveillance on those leaders…. The difference now is that in addition to being accomplished by street-level policing like stop-and-frisk and first-generation surveillance technology like wire taps, it’s being carried out through highly advanced, battlefield-born surveillance technologies.”

One reason the groups are pushing legislative efforts at the local level is that federal agencies have advised state and local police agencies on ways to conceal the use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity-catchers and other surveillance technologies. Accountability, the coalition emphasizes, ultimately rests with state and local governments who are “on the hook” for supervising and shaping the action of police departments.

“The federal government cannot force local police departments to accept the use of surveillance technology,” said Chad Marlow, who is advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU. “What we suggest to local jurisdictions is adopting, as a part of their bill, provisions that do not accept technologies in which they have secrecy baked into it. So, if there’s a non-disclosure agreement with the technology, that cannot be accepted.”

The coalition hopes to build up from this effort using local efforts to pressure congressional representatives from their particular jurisdictions to rein in the federal connection to local law enforcement practices.

Moreover, Cyril noted, transparency is just a small first step toward dismantling an inherently racist, discriminatory and ineffective structure.

“Ultimately, what’s true is that we need new approaches to security and accountability that abolish the current system of policing that exists, and bring forward something new, something that works, something that does not discriminate,” Cyril said.

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