Berkeley may soon limit use of police surveillance technology on residents

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Berkeley City Council will consider an ordinance proposed by the Police Review Commission, or PRC, to regulate the use of surveillance technologies, including gunshot detectors or social media analytics software, at its meeting Jan. 23.

The Surveillance Technology Use and Community Safety Ordinance would require public approval in order for Berkeley Police Department and Berkeley Fire Department to use any new surveillance equipment. According to the text of the ordinance, it seeks to increase transparency, protect civil liberties and evaluate the costs of the new technology.

“It will basically sunlight proposed and existing government surveillance technology,” said PRC vice chair George Lippman. “So it doesn’t ban any particular technology outright but provides a way for there to be community understanding and input.”

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said public comment on the ordinance is scheduled for the Jan. 23 city council meeting, but that a council decision will not take place until the following meeting Jan 30. Berkeley Considers, the city’s online forum, has been open since Tuesday for residents to express their views on the proposal.

Under the new ordinance, BPD and BFD must draft impact and use reports, consult their respective review commissions and gain approval from the city council before implementing new surveillance technology. Only in “exigent circumstances” would either department be able to temporarily use unsanctioned technology, according to the proposed ordinance.

Mohamed Shehk, spokesperson for the Oakland-based organization Critical Resistance, expressed his support for curbing the state’s use of surveillance tools but voiced concern that such legislation could also legitimize the tools’ use.

“We also want to push further and say that local law enforcement cannot be expanding their power at all,” Shehk said. “If anything, we should be reducing, de-arming law enforcement of tools they already have.”

This ordinance is part of a wider Bay Area campaign to create a policy framework for the use of surveillance technology, led by organizations such the American Civil Liberties Union and Oakland Privacy. According to Brian Hofer, a member of Oakland Privacy who sat on the PRC subcommittee charged with introducing the ordinance, the city of Berkeley has been working on the ordinance since July 2016.

According to Lippman, the subcommittee worked in a “collaborative” way with BPD and BFD to draft the ordinance. In a companion report to the ordinance, BPD chief Andrew Greenwood and interim BFD chief Dave Brannigan noted that their respective departments are still reviewing the possible impacts of the ordinance.

“None of this is aimed at the police,” Lippman said. “We hope that with more protection for civil rights and civil liberties the police will have greater legitimacy and provide constitutional protection, which will make Berkeley safer for everyone and have benefits across the board, including for the police.”

Sophia Brown-Heidenreich covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sophiabrownh.