Opinion mixed on El Cerrito’s new surveillance cameras
By Lou Fancher
It’s understandable that a plan to upgrade and add surveillance cameras along the Ohlone Greenway has El Cerrito citizens’ attention. After all, recent news revealed BART station cameras had collected and stored the images of 57,632 license plates on a database accessible to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Police Chief Keith Paul said it’s a sign of the times that turnout was strong and people were engaged at a recent public meeting held to outline the city’s surveillance camera program. In addition to questions about privacy, storage, use and capabilities of the system, Paul said in an interview that “The public rightfully wants to know if public security systems are effective.”
In 2009, the city’s nine cameras were installed on five “nodes” (poles, each holding several cameras) along the greenway between Blake Street and Conlon Avenue. Completed in 2011, the system operated without digital storage capabilities. During the last three years, after the company that maintained the cameras went out of business, the cameras fell into disrepair and became largely nonoperational.
“But even while our system was operational, we didn’t have a data point to make a record of every time the system identified a suspect or solved a crime,” said Paul. “I wish I could give you statistics (from that period), but we weren’t looking at monitoring the system then as we are now. Maybe there wasn’t the same level of scrutiny demanded by the community.”
Times have changed. With growing and often conflicting concerns about safety; privacy; the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency; video sharing; violent crimes; the best use of tax dollars; and whether or not individual civil rights are preserved during the social media era, city surveillance policies are at the forefront of public attention. Paul said people are concerned about how facial recognition software will be used, among other worries.
“That will not be a component of the new system,” he said. “If we do that later on, that’s something we’d have public meetings about.”
At the recent meeting, citizens were given information that included existing and new camera locations and other key features. Bay Area-based Odin Systems Inc. is upgrading or replacing the old cameras and installing five new poles that each hold three to four cameras. The state-of-the-art cameras have tilt and zoom capabilities that can be controlled remotely.
“A sergeant or watch commander watching a monitor at a desk who sees activity can tilt and zoom in on a certain area,” said Paul.
The project expense is less than $600,000 and will create a wireless network with technology for expansion should the city council approve future additions. Paul says financing over a 5-year period includes a maintenance agreement and comes from public-private partnerships between the city and local businesses and from asset forfeiture funds or general funding determined by the City Council. The new system will store video on an in-house server for 60 days.
“If we have a criminal incident, it will be downloaded and retained like any piece of evidence,” Paul said. “For a misdemeanor, it will be shorter because the statute of limitations is limited. A felony could potentially be retained forever.”
Because El Cerrito is a “sanctuary city,” Paul said the information will only be shared with other law enforcement agencies when there is a “bona fide” reason.
“And when it comes to reviewing the video for immigration purposes, for the most part, we’re not going to share the video with them (ICE) absent a court order.”
Paul said a volunteer associated with the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union attended the public meeting. The Police Department also met separately with the ACLU.
“Their concerns were about sharing with federal partners, data stored on cloud servers that gives agencies access, impact reports that are made public and analyzing the balance of safety and whether or not it outweighs a person’s privacy rights.”
An ACLU communication associate responding to a number of calls and emails said no one was available to comment, instead offering a link to online information and recommendations: “Making Smart Decisions About Surveillance: A Guide for Community Transparency, Accountability & Oversight,” available for viewing at bayareane.ws/2xmzUi9. While acknowledging people’s desire not to be filmed in public spaces, Paul said the need for protection is always present and must be addressed.
“You have to look at both sides of the issue. At the meeting, the public actually wanted us to go further. They mentioned that in Europe there are officers who have GPS on their uniforms and (that) the cameras can track to where the officer is. The officers can control the cameras. There’s more use of facial recognition. People wanted to know what we’d do if we have more money,” Paul stated.
He said adding more cameras to expand coverage — instead of adding features to the system — would be his recommendation. Any future actions will include public-noticed meetings and decisions made by the El Cerrito City Council.