Police Review Commission votes to recommend continuing agreement with government database to City Council

Jihoon Park/Staff

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In light of the upcoming City Council meeting, the Police Review Commission has decided to recommend that City Council renew its agreement with Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, or NCRIC, but to also monitor Berkeley Police Department’s use of the fusion center.

For several weeks, PRC has discussed the importance of NCRIC, a government database known to collect license plate information and suspicious action reports, or SARs, and how often BPD actually employs the database — both of which still remain unclear to PRC. PRC invited the American Civil Liberties Union to its Wednesday meeting to resolve any questions the commission still had before next week’s City Council meeting.

“I encourage Berkeley to think about the benefits for the police department and potential civil rights costs,” said Matthew Cagle, an ACLU policy attorney for technology and civil liberties, at the meeting. “Even though Berkeley is not sending its own (information), Berkeley residents are in the database if they drive outside of Berkeley. … They are subject to reads from others that submit (data) to NCRIC.”

Cagle said at the meeting that PRC should examine who can access NCRIC and clarify restrictions for certain types of information when using the database. PRC’s main concern, according to Cagle, should be determining the oversight and transparency process Berkeley should have for NCRIC. He added, however, that fusion centers have never been proven to prevent a terrorist attack. He also noted that he was unaware of any city or state bill that has opted out of NCRIC before.

According to Cagle, aside from NCRIC’s collection of license plates and SARs, very little is known about what NCRIC compiles or the size of the database. He added that Twitter has blocked NCRIC from accessing some of its data, which made the ACLU and other organizations realize that NCRIC is subscribed to social media surveillance software.

PRC Commissioner Alison Bernstein said at the meeting that one of the drawbacks of opting out of NCRIC is that BPD could lose access to the license plate information and training NCRIC provides. But she also said the ACLU has dealt with the inappropriate use of SARs across the country in the past, which led to Berkeley’s current stringent policy of SARs.

“I have not followed up to see how many times (BPD) use NCRIC access to help get data,” said acting BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood at the meeting. “I would ask that the PRC go forward with NCRIC while looking at some of the concerns Mr. Cagle brought forth.”

Without that quantitative information, however, PRC Commissioner George Perezvelez said during the meeting that he could not support the continuation of NCRIC. He alleged that data could be misused and said that with no apparent evidence of NCRIC’s effectiveness, he could not trust BPD’s use of the database.

PRC also invited NCRIC Executive Director Mike Sena, but he was not able to attend the meeting.

PRC decided to continue to allow BPD to use NCRIC, with a five-to-three vote. The decision, however, included that within 90 days, PRC must receive an audit about how BPD uses its information acquired from NCRIC. With this audit, PRC will then enact a protocol to regulate BPD’s use of the database. PRC will continue to have a similar audit every six months.

Gibson Chu is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @thegibsonchu.