City commissioners and city management are at odds over what Long Beach should do about facial recognition technology, with two advisory bodies saying it should be paused or banned and city management saying the city is already taking steps to safeguard residents’ privacy.
The dispute spilled out into public view Wednesday when Parisa Vinzant, a member of the Technology and Innovation Commission, which has been studying the city’s use of facial recognition technology for the past two years, claimed that a city memo released late last week had minimized commission recommendations and had the potential to kill two years’ worth of work and community input.
The memo from City Manager Tom Modica, originally posted on the evening of Dec. 16, outlined the nearly two-year review undertaken by the Technology and Innovation Commission as well as a later recommendation from the Equity and Human Relations Commission to ban the use of technology. Modica advised the council not to approve the commissions’ recommendations but acknowledged that additional policy measures are needed to build trust in the city’s use of smart technologies.
Vinzant said the memo has “stacked the deck” against the commissions’ recommendations to address concerns over facial recognition technology.
“I’m sad to say this, but I sincerely doubt that City Council will take up this item now that the city manager has put himself so clearly against it,” Vinzant said.
The commission has been looking into the issue since January 2021, after the council approved a citywide Framework for Reconciliation plan to address systemic racial inequities.
Community members and civil rights groups have called for the ban of the use of facial recognition technology because of concerns over how it’s used and how accurate the technology is. The American Civil Liberties Union called for a federal ban in February 2021 because it “disproportionately misidentifies and misclassifies people of color, trans people, women, and other marginalized groups” and enables “governments to track the public movements, habits, and associations of all people, at all times.”
Police Chief Wally Hebeish has said that the department doesn’t use the technology for mass surveillance of the community and that it’s a valuable tool to generate leads in criminal investigations when evidence supports its use. In a memo attached to Modica’s recommendation, Hebeish also said that the department uses the technology to help identify victims of human trafficking.
Technology and Innovation commissioners worked to produce a white paper that outlined some of the technology’s shortcomings, like its potential to misidentify people of color, and what other cities have done to address concerns.
In March, the commission recommended:
- The city create an independent commission with authority and oversight over algorithmic surveillance technology;
- The council impose a moratorium on all current and future technology; and
- The city adopt a framework for vetting and monitoring the technology.
The city’s Equity and Human Rights Commission went a step further and called for an outright ban of the technology and for the city to redirect the over $7 million it spends on the technology to youth development programs, workforce training and other community benefiting programs.
Vinzant alleged there had been a city-led effort to slow the commission’s work down and pointed to the original memo, released Dec. 16, that didn’t include the EHRC’s full recommendations as an attachment—the city reissued the memo on Dec. 22 with the letter—as another instance of city staff undermining the two commissions’ recommendations.
Modica said that the timing of the memo’s release was a product of the level of information that needed to be reviewed and that the council can still take up the issue, although Modica said the council’s Public Safety Committee has already discussed the policy multiple times.
Getting it on the City Council’s agenda would require a council member to request the item be added for the full body to consider it. Modica’s office could put the item on the agenda without any council member’s involvement, but he said he felt he’d “done his part” in making the recommendation, reiterating that he didn’t support a ban or a moratorium on the use of the technology.
“We want our officers to be able to solve crimes,” Modica said, adding that there are strong protocols to protect the privacy and security of the data collected, and the city is working to strengthen them.
He pointed to a March 2021 vote by the council to adopt data privacy guidelines and an implementation plan that includes 13 recommendations to build public trust, such as hiring of data privacy staff—which the council approved funding for in this past budget cycle—and adopting a data privacy ordinance that would govern the use of the technology.
Neither of those have been fully implemented, but Modica said the city’s Police Department is working to update its special order that outlines its procedures for using facial recognition technologies and associated databases while the city is working to refine and implement its policies.
Another one of the 13 recommendations is similar to the Technology and Innovation Commission’s request for a new commission to oversee the use of facial recognition technology, but it would serve an advisory role, not provide oversight. Creating a new commission would require dedicated staff and stipends for commissioners, and Modica said it would likely be similar to the recently created commission for women and girls. The city estimated that it would cost about $115,000 per year for that commission’s creation.
Vinzant said she is “struggling to find hope” at this moment that a council member will be willing to take the issue on given the weight that the city manager’s recommendation can have with council members.
“We did all this work and the community did their part and showed up,” Vinzant said. “Why can’t we also have the same expectation that our elected leaders will show up for us and give real consideration of this collective effort and collective evidence?”