A city commission tasked with promoting understanding and respect among Long Beach residents voted today to recommend a ban on a variety of surveillance technologies used by local police, including facial recognition software and automated license plate readers.

In a draft letter released Tuesday, the Equity and Human Relations Commission said technologies currently being used by the Long Beach Police Department “pose significant civil liberties and racial justice concerns” and were “largely deployed without any public policy discussions.” They should be “banned from use” by the city, according to the draft letter, which is addressed to Mayor Robert Garcia and the City Council and was largely written by Commission Chair Alyssa Gutierrez.

“While some cities have attempted to reform the technology, it is the opinion of the [commission] that racist technology cannot be reformed, it must be banned altogether,” the draft states.

The commission largely approved the language of the draft letter Wednesday, June 1, with some minor edits and a major change to the language of the final recommendation, which called for an oversight commission after a half dozen members of the public expressed significant reservations about the effectiveness of such a body. The commission’s recommendations do not carry any legal weight but could influence the Police Department to change its policies or the City Council to enact ordinances restricting surveillance.

The draft letter recommends the city ban the LBPD’s use of automated license plate readers, facial recognition technology and other biometric technology.

Specifically, the letter points to the LBPD’s use of the Los Angeles County Regional Identification System, known as LACRIS, which is a facial recognition system based on a countywide database of mugshots. To use the system, which is run by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, LBPD investigators submit an image of someone they’re trying to identify and LACRIS compares it against the database of 9 million mugshots, which critics point out is disproportionately filled with people of color.

Similarly, automated license plate readers give the LBPD the capability of creating “an intimate and invasive record of residents’ daily activities, allowing the department to “target sensitive locations such as immigration clinics, abortion clinics, places of worship, union halls and political headquarters,” according to the draft letter. The letter also notes that the LBPD has shared license plate data with certain divisions within Immigration Customs Enforcement since 2020.

The draft letter also asks the city to “redirect” the $7.3 million it currently spends on surveillance to “investments that are proven to prevent crime and promote safe communities,” like youth development programs, workforce training and access to stable, affordable housing.

The letter’s final recommendation, to establish a Community Oversight Commission on Surveillance Technologies that would set rules about how to vet and oversee the use of surveillance technology in the future, was simplified, with details on its proposed duties removed and a call for the community to help shape what meaningful and effective oversight would look like added.

The commission’s recommendations were based on testimony from the public, a presentation from the immigrant rights group Just Futures Law, as well as research and findings from the city’s Technology and Innovation Commission, which studied facial recognition tech for over a year, according to the letter.

The Equity and Human Relations Commission began looking at the issue of facial recognition technology in October after the city’s Technology and Innovation Commission asked it to review its research and recommendations through a “racial equity lens,” according to Gutierrez’s draft letter.

Doing so requires centering the experiences and needs of those most impacted by the surveillance technologies, the draft letter says.

Because 72% of Long Beach’s population is made up of people of color, “an overwhelming majority of our residents have the potential to be negatively impacted by the use of this technology,” the draft says.

In testimony before the City Council last summer, LBPD Chief Wally Hebeish said the department does not use facial recognition to conduct “mass surveillance.” 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 Technology and Innovation Commission noted in a July 2021 meeting.

That year, the ACLU called for a complete ban on all federal government use of facial recognition tech. The civil rights organization said the technology was dangerous because it both “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.”

The Long Beach Technology and Innovation Commission ultimately approved three recommendations in March, including a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology and the creation of an independent commission “that possess authority and oversight” over surveillance tech. It also recommended the city adopt a vetting framework for monitoring new forms of surveillance but stopped short of calling for an outright ban. The commission has not yet formally transmitted its recommendations to the mayor and City Council, so it’s unclear yet what, if any, effect they will have on policymakers.

13 members of the public spoke at the Wednesday meeting. All were supportive of the draft letter’s call for a ban on the LBPD’s current and future use of surveillance technologies.

Long Beach resident Gaby Segovia, speaking Spanish, denounced the surveillance tech, saying “we don’t want this technology to exist,” according to the meeting’s translator.

Jamilet Ochoa of the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition expressed gratitude to the commission for taking on the issue, saying “this is what I call a step towards building trust.”

But Ochoa and others said they opposed any sort of oversight committee, both because current oversight bodies are rarely effective and may actually end up legitimizing the existence of surveillance technology.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include details from Wednesday’s meeting.

Technology commission calls for moratorium on city’s use of facial recognition technology

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.