City Council bans facial recognition, evaluates Pathways STAIR Navigation Center performance

Vanessa Lim/Staff

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Berkeley City Council members unanimously voted at Tuesday night’s meeting to ban facial recognition technology from being used by any city agenciesincluding the Berkeley Police Department — making Berkeley the fourth city in the country to enact such a ban.

The ordinance prevents the implementation of surveillance technology capable of passively identifying individuals in public. Reinforcing the city’s emphasis on individual privacy, proponents for the ban pointed to potential Fourth Amendment rights violations and the technology’s error rate, which is even higher for people of color.

“Facial recognition technology is here right now. It’s starting to explode and become more prevalent,” said Brian Hofer, chair and executive director of the nonprofit Secure Justice, at the meeting. “That’s why we’re moving fast to keep the genie in the bottle.”

Berkeley’s ordinance follows San Francisco, which was the first city to pass a ban on this technology. In June and July, both Somerville, Massachusetts and Oakland also passed bans on facial recognition technology.

A letter co-signed by the American Civil Liberties Union and a dozen other civil rights organizations urged council members to pass the ordinance. The letter referenced a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study that found facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifies people of color, with an error rate of nearly 35 percent for Black women.

District 4 City Councilmember Kate Harrison, who worked with Hofer to draft the ordinance, said the policy is a proactive measure to make sure city cameras are not used for “unintended purposes.” Even if the technology were completely accurate, Harrison contended it would constitute an invasion of privacy.

“There are already thousands of cameras in place, just waiting for facial recognition to be coupled with them,” according to the letter cosigned by civil rights organizations, including the ACLU. “We don’t have to accept as inevitable that technology will creep further into our lives.”

Following its June anniversary, the Pathways STAIR Navigation Center — Berkeley’s first homeless navigation program — received an evaluation from the Health, Housing and Community Services Department, or HHCS. At the council meeting, Peter Radu, HHCS homeless services coordinator, presented findings from the evaluation to mixed reviews.

“I’m pleased to see the results,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín at the meeting. “We have been able to effectively house a greater number of people than we are through our normal shelter program.”

While the mayor and City Council had much to say about the center’s achievements, council members and the public voiced their concerns over the growing need for more readily available, short-term resources for the unhoused population in Berkeley.

“This program is great — I’m glad it’s happening, but Pathways houses 45 people and has dealt with 170 over the year,” said local activist Margy Wilkinson during public comment. “That leaves 1,100 people who are out there sleeping on the streets … We can’t sustain that, so there has to be something between Pathways and what exists on the streets in the city of Berkeley.”

Concerns were also raised about the inability to effectively track and measure the program’s success among those who are placed in permanent housing outside of Berkeley. Only 19% of clients are housed within the city and the program has not yet started tracking data related to the location of permanent housing, according to Radu.

Carole Marasovic, chair of the city’s Homeless Commission, said although she believes Pathways is producing positive outcomes, she is worried that clients who are housed outside of Berkeley will not have adequate access to resources. She also expressed her concern about the short-term nature of the program’s current housing subsidy structure. 

“We have to keep working on and carving out housing in Berkeley,” said Marasovic. “It’s good that short-term help is available, but many people need permanent support and subsidies.”

The City Council also passed an ordinance to explicitly ban discrimination on the basis of hairstyle or headwear within employment, housing and public accommodations.

Contact Brandon Yung and Jacob Souza at [email protected].