Berkeley City Council discusses surveillance technology use, community safety

Ireland Wagner/File

At the Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday, the council decided to delay its decision to approve the Berkeley Police Department, or BPD, report on the performance of specific pieces of surveillance technology being used.

This BPD report was the first one given under the newly passed Surveillance Technology Use and Community Safety Ordinance enacted in 2018, according to Kathy Lee, commission officer of Berkeley’s Police Review Commission, or PRC. The ordinance requires that any use of surveillance technology is reported to the City Council for approval to ensure transparency.

“The purpose is to protect the privacy rights and civil liberty rights of civilians, but to also allow the technologies when they have some beneficial purpose for the city,” Lee said.

This presentation was a year late, however, said Oakland Privacy member Tracy Rosenberg, who was on the PRC-appointed subcommittee that drafted the ordinance. The ordinance stated that the city manager must submit a “Surveillance Impact Report and a proposed Surveillance Use Policy for each Surveillance Technology possessed or used prior to the effective date of this ordinance” by November 2018.

Dee Williams-Ridley, Berkeley city manager, also reported Tuesday that the city had acquired drones and cameras in August 2018 because of protests, which were determined to be an emergency. Technology borrowed on an emergency basis should be reported 30 days after the technology is used, according to Rosenberg.

Rosenberg also expressed concern regarding the use of body-worn cameras, which are used to document interactions between civilians and department personnel. She said the city has continued to advocate for a policy in which the officer can view the footage before finalizing the report.

“Generally, from the point of view of an internal investigation, it’s helpful to note where there are discrepancies between what the officer remembers when they describe it and what’s actually visible on the video,” Rosenberg said. “You lose that investigative tool when the report and the video are sort of made to match in this process.”

At the meeting, council members discussed the use of automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs, which was one of the pieces of surveillance technology Williams-Ridley reported on. District 4 City Councilmember Kate Harrison presented an amendment to the proposed BPD policy regarding ALPR use to clarify that the technology would be used specifically for parking and scofflaw purposes, as the proposed policy would expand the uses of the technology, according to Harrison.

The meeting ended before the City Council could reach a consensus on the issue. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín decided to postpone the issue to the Dec. 3 City Council meeting, which Rosenberg said she thought was a good decision.

“It’s important that when we hold public hearings that we be clear about … why we’re bringing this equipment into our town and what it’s going to do and how it’s going to be used and that those public hearings, those conversations are not just pro forma,” Rosenberg explained. “They need to be treated as, like, a serious covenant with the public — and if we’re going to change them abruptly, that’s something that requires a conversation.”

Contact Emma Rooholfada at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.