City of snoops

There’s never been any serious question that the Sacramento City Council, following the lead of the Sacramento Police Department, would impose a new surveillance system on the city of Sacramento. It’s just been a question of how much lip service our elected officials would pay to protecting our rights.

The answer? Not too much.

The council last week unanimously agreed to accept $600,000 in state Homeland Security funds to purchase and install more than 30 surveillance cameras in public places around the city. The money would also pay for four mobile camera units that can be moved around as needed—for example, to a neighborhood that has experienced a rash of burglaries, or into an area where political protests are being held.

The funds come from the Urban Areas Security Initiative, which funnels federal funds into cities that are at risk for terrorist attack.

But Sacramento’s proposed surveillance scheme has little to do with fighting terrorism. Instead, it is intended to be a cheap, if somewhat intrusive, way to investigate crimes.

Opponents, including the Sacramento chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, note that the police department and the mayor’s office have provided no data showing that surveillance cameras help prevent crime. On the other hand, studies are beginning to pile up showing that they don’t.

Likewise, there is no written policy (or policy at all) to protect the privacy of Sacramento citizens, no policy on what may or may not be done with the information collected. And there’s been almost no engagement with the public on the issue.

“Ultimately the decision lies with the citizens of the city,” said local ACLU chairman Jim Updegraff. “There should have been forums and public hearings where both proponents and opponents of the surveillance would have had an opportunity to debate the issue, before you made your decision.”

Yeah, there should have been. But City Councilmen Steve Cohn and Rob Fong at least seemed to understand that there were privacy issues at stake.

Cohn asked that some sort of guidelines—addressing privacy protections and explaining how the department will measure the effectiveness of the new cameras—be put in place before the camera funds are spent.

Fong likewise said there needed to be more discussion about how the cameras were going to be rolled out, saying, “I want to make sure we’re not unfairly targeting any neighborhoods.”

So it seems the police department will have to at least go through the motions of writing a policy on privacy. But any real debate about the issue now seems out of the question.

And there were a few alarming moments during the council’s limited discussion last week. City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond said she hoped the cameras would be used to fight minor crimes as well as serious ones. “I’m extremely disappointed we can’t utilize these cameras for code enforcement.” She specifically mentioned illegal dumping, but code enforcement covers an awful lot of ground. As one critic, Debra Reiger, asked, “When will there be one on my street corner? When will there be one across the street from me to find out that one of my neighbors waters on days he’s not supposed to water?”

Also unsettling, Deputy Police Chief Sam Somers said that because the Sac P.D. is short-staffed, the department is considering letting volunteers monitor surveillance footage. After all, the only thing better than turning cops into snoops is turning untrained wannabe cops into snoops.

Then there was this piece of nuanced policy analysis from Mayor Kevin Johnson, who had nothing but good things to say about the Sac police and their thoughtful approach to balancing civil liberties with public safety:

“I’m very proud when we think about public safety being a top priority and you and your team certainly finding ways to be innovative during these challenges.”

Good thing these folks are watching out for us.