City commission modifies its call for ban on use of police surveillance technology

In response to criticism from community organizations and civil rights activists, a city commission voted Wednesday night to slightly modify its earlier call for a ban on the city’s use of surveillance technology.

The Equity & Human Relations Commission is no longer asking for the creation of a community oversight commission to monitor future developments in police surveillance, saying such a body would do more harm than good, the commission voted Wednesday. Such a recommendation had been part of a package of recommendations concerning facial recognition technology and other surveillance tech the commission.

Though initially approved in June, those recommendations have yet to be formally transmitted to the mayor and City Council, according to city officials.

The commission had originally included the oversight commission recommendation as a kind of compromise measure to give the community some sort of protection if the City Council refused to ban facial recognition tech and automated license plate readers, Chair Alyssa Gutierrez said during the Wednesday meeting.

Mohammad Tajsar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Southern California office, told the commission Wednesday that while oversight commissions—popularly known as “Community Control Over Police Surveillance” or CCOPS—already exist in 22 cities around the country, including New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Nashville and San Diego, he believes that such a body would not lead to prohibition of the use of facial recognition technology and other surveillance methods in Long Beach, which his office supports.

The commission’s letter on surveillance technology still calls for the city to ban facial recognition technology—including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s LACRIS database—as well as automated license plate readers. It also calls for the redirection of the $7.3 million the city spends on such technology to “youth development programs, workforce training programs that lead to stable, family‐sustaining jobs, mental health services, and access to stable, affordable housing.”

Tajsar said the ACLU strongly supported those recommendations.

“There is ample research demonstrating that surveillance technology is inherently biased, anti‐black, and targets immigrant communities,” states the Equity Commission’s letter. While other communities had attempted to reform the technology, commissioners wrote, they added that “racist technology cannot be reformed, it must be banned altogether.”

LBPD Chief Wally Hebeish said last year that the department only uses the software to generate leads in criminal investigations and not “for mass surveillance of the community.”

Hebeish said the department’s policies only let investigators use LACRIS when trying to identify specific people while investigating a crime. LACRIS documents state that the database only “assists in the identification process” of suspects.

While the technology has been used to prevent sex trafficking and locate missing persons, civil rights activists have noted that “algorithmic bias” has led to false identifications and wrongful arrests of people of color, the Long Beach Technology and Innovation Commission noted in a July 2021 meeting.

Seventeen people spoke Wednesday in support of the Equity Commission’s call for a ban on police surveillance technologies during its Wednesday meeting. But many of them also spoke out against the commission’s original final recommendation, calling for the establishment of a “Community Oversight Commission on Surveillance Technologies” that would develop and oversee a “surveillance vetting framework ordinance” governing the use and purchase of new technologies.

“Transparency is not enough,” Jamilet Ochoa of the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition told the Equity Commission on Wednesday, adding that oversight merely “legitimizes” the use of future surveillance tech.

The commission has heard such criticism before. At the Aug. 3 Equity & Human Relations Commission meeting, Julie Mao, deputy director of Just Futures Law, said such commissions were “insufficient,” “overly bureaucratic” and, in Long Beach’s case, “a bit redundant,” considering that two of the city’s commissions have already spent the better part of two years researching police surveillance tech.

When the amended recommendation letter will reach the mayor and City Council is unknown.

After the Technology & Innovation Commission approved its long-awaited white paper calling for a moratorium on the LBPD’s use of facial recognition tech in July, both panels agreed to bundle their respective papers and transmit them to the city manager as a single package, along with a cover sheet containing what city officials called “analysis” from city staff, to the city manager, who would then give them to Mayor Robert Garcia and the City Council.

But city officials say transmission to the City Council and Mayor has not yet taken place. Chair Gutierrez said Wednesday that the package of recommendations has still not reached the mayor or City Council.

Lea Eriksen, the city’s technology and innovation director, told the Technology Commission on Aug. 24 that while a draft of the documents has been transmitted to the city manager’s office, both recommendation documents were also still being “vetted” by city staff, which included the Long Beach Police Department, but she hoped it would be released “any day now.”

In an email to the Post, Eriksen said that since the city manager’s office has “several layers of review,” she doesn’t know when it will be transmitted to City Council.

Over the summer, commissioners with both the Technology & Innovation Commission and the Equity & Human Relations Commission discussed whether they should take their police surveillance recommendations to city councilmembers directly, but both commissions ultimately agreed to hold back until formal transmission had taken place.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information from Technology and Innovation Director Lea Eriksen, and clarification of the remarks from Mohammad Tajsar.

UPDATE: Equity commission recommends ban on some police surveillance technologies

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.
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