Oakland Kills Video Surveillance Project

September 22, 1997 12:00 am

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Oakland City Council Kills Video Surveillance Project;
ACLU Cites Important Lessons for Other Cities

Monday, September 22, 1997

OAKLAND, CA — Adopting a recommendation from its own police department, the Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee has voted three-to-one to kill a proposed high-tech video surveillance pilot project.

“This decision strikes a blow against Big Brother,” said John Crew, Director of the ACLU of Northern California’s Police Practices Project, who had protested the surveillance plan from the onset.

The Police Department’s sudden opposition to video surveillance was a reversal of their year-long advocacy in favor of the use of this technology in public areas. The about-face occurred after the Department was ordered to carefully consider doubts about the technology uncovered by research presented by the ACLU. The Oakland City Attorney also concluded that the surveillance plan, as proposed, would violate constitutional rights to privacy.

“We were always confident that, if the issue was fully and fairly explored, high tech video surveillance would be rejected,” Crew said. “At first, people simply assumed that video surveillance would reduce crime and that there was no right to privacy in public places. Once they considered this issue more closely, however, they found otherwise.”

At its meeting, the Council Committee endorsed a report from Police Chief Joseph Samuels, Jr., concluding that “… concerns about governmental intrusions and abridgment of civil liberties from residents and merchants of this City will likely negate the advantages and potential of this method of crime prevention.”

The Oakland Police Department had first proposed the video surveillance plan in September 1996. At an April 1997 demonstration for the Council Committee, the Department showed off chillingly powerful video cameras that swivel every direction and can zoom in to read the fine print on a flyer from hundreds of yards away or can recognize a license plate or face from more than a mile away. As recently as July, the Department asked the Council to mount the cameras at pilot sites along Lakeshore Avenue and near the Oakland/Alameda Coliseum.

As the ACLU noted, these were hardly the sort of handheld video camcorders used by families or the low tech cameras mounted in convenience store. According to the ACLU’s Crew, “These are among the most powerful and invasive tools currently in Big Brother’s arsenal.” Crew pointed out that face recognition technology will soon allow individuals captured on video to be instantly identified through computerized searches of facial images already stored in a variety of government databases.

In July, the Council Committee asked for a written legal opinion addressing the ACLU’s concerns.

The Oakland City Attorney opinion concluded that a “… method of surveillance may be no greater than that which can be achieved by the naked eye. Mindful of the advances in technology, the California Supreme Court has held that ‘precious liberties derived from the Framers (do not) simply shrink as the government acquires new means of infringing upon them.’ Additionally, the (U.S. Court of Appeals for the) Ninth Circuit has held that ‘the police may record what they normally may view with the naked eye.’ Consequently, one may have a reasonable expectation of privacy from observation from a video camera equipped with zoom or magnifying capabilities.”

In Chief Samuels’ report to the Council, he stated that the Oakland Police Department had hoped to be “… among the pioneers in the field of taped video camera surveillance” but ultimately found that “… there is no conclusive way to establish that the presence of video surveillance cameras resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime.”

“We hope this is a lesson to other communities,” Crew concluded. “Big Brother is often less effective, more expensive and much more intrusive than he may appear to be a first glance.”

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