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Cambridge, Mass., asserts community control over surveillance technology

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Cambridge, Mass., asserts community control over surveillance technology

  • San Francisco officials wanted to close a dilapidated jail by 2019. So why is it still open?

  • Woman held on $300 bail dies after five months in Texas jail

  • Officers who snatched a 1-year-old from his mother’s arms did nothing wrong, according to the NYPD

  • North Carolina counties quit ICE program

  • Prosecutors in St. Louis County want to join the police union

  • Protester who climbed the Statue of Liberty goes on trial today

In the Spotlight

Cambridge, Mass., asserts community control over surveillance technology

Last week, the Daily Appeal looked at the NYPD’s launch of a drone program and the civil liberties concerns it raises, given the department’s history of unlawful surveillance, including of mosques and Muslim New Yorkers. The nation’s two largest police departments, the NYPD and the LAPD, now both have drone programs. The NYPD sought input from the New York Civil Liberties Union and the City Council on its drone policy before the official start of the program and describes the drones as intended primarily for non-surveillance purposes. But much of NYCLU’s feedback was ignored, according to the organization, and the final policy has loopholes that give enormous leeway for surveillance.

Elsewhere, there is momentum toward greater community control and oversight. Last Monday, Cambridge, Massachusetts, joined a small number of jurisdictions around the country that mandate transparency and community control over the use of surveillance technology. The City Council passed an ordinance that requires the body’s approval before any surveillance technologies can be “funded, acquired, or used.” The ordinance came out of two years of community input and negotiations over the language of the law and was backed by the city’s police commissioner. [Jenna Fischer / Patch]

The ordinance covers a wide range of devices and software including “automatic license plate readers, video surveillance, biometric surveillance technology including facial and voice recognition software and databases, social media monitoring software, police body-worn cameras, predictive policing software.” The law also covers surveillance technology that is already in the city’s hands. The police or any other city department seeking to use the technology must provide the City Council with information including the technology’s capabilities, the precise intended use, how the data would be preserved and protected, the cost of acquiring and using it, and the potential negative effects on civil rights and civil liberties and how they would be prevented. Under the law, city departments, including the police, must regularly report how they are using the surveillance tools. [Jenna Fischer / Patch]

Cambridge became the first Boston-area town to have legislation regulating the acquisition and use of surveillance equipment. The City Council of Lawrence, Massachusetts, passed a similar ordinance in September and the ACLU of Massachusetts is pushing for the adoption of legislation in two other towns, Brookline and Worcester. [Jenna Fischer / Patch]

Laws of the type passed by Cambridge’s City Council were first passed in Santa Clara County in California in 2016. Seattle; Davis, California; and other cities soon followed. This year, Oakland, California, passed an enhanced version of the law.

Oakland’s ordinance raised the bar in two crucial ways. The first was that it clearly defined surveillance technology to include software used for surveillance-based analysis. The second was that it prohibits city agencies from entering into nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) or contracts that undermine the protections of the ordinance. The Electronic Frontier Foundation highlighted the importance of these provisions, noting that, “For years courts and communities have been kept in the dark about the use of surveillance technology as a result of NDAs not only with tech vendors but also with federal agencies including the FBI.” [Nathan Sheard / Electronic Frontier Foundation]

The NYPD is among those agencies that have defended the use of nondisclosure agreements—and resisted community oversight of surveillance technologies. In City Council hearings last year on the Police Oversight and Surveillance Transparency (POST) Act, a deputy NYPD commissioner explained the department’s failure to make contracts available for review, saying, “Many of these technologies, because they’re only effective if bad people don’t know how they work and how to defeat it, are given to us pursuant to very strict nondisclosure agreements.” The range of surveillance practices that the NYPD fails to disclose information about includes facial recognition software, predictive policing software, X-ray vans, the “mosque raking” program that targeted the city’s Muslim communities, and body-worn cameras, according to reporting by the Intercept. [Ali Winston / The Intercept]

Like the ordinance adopted the Cambridge City Council, the POST Act would require the NYPD to report and evaluate all surveillance technologies that they intend to acquire or use. However, Electronic Frontier Foundation notes the limitations of the POST Act, which, unlike the ordinances adopted in Berkeley, Oakland, Seattle, Nashville, and now Cambridge, would not give the New York City Council veto power over the acquisition of surveillance technology. Nor would it give the City Council the power to order the NYPD to cease use of equipment that it used in violation of the published policy. [Nathan Sheard / Electronic Frontier Foundation]

Concerns about surveillance technology in Cambridge go back to at least 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security installed eight cameras on city streets—a small fraction of the more than 100 installed in the greater Boston area. Going under the gaze of video cameras is the cost of being in public in most large cities, but in Cambridge, thanks to public outcry, the cameras were never turned on. And thanks to the recent ordinance, they still cannot be turned on without approval from City Council. [Adam Sennott / Wicked Local]

Stories From The Appeal


San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón
[Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

San Francisco Officials Wanted to Close a Dilapidated Jail By 2019. So Why Is It Still Open? Everyone agrees the jail at 850 Bryant should close, but it’s not yet clear what would happen to those locked inside. [Melissa Gira Grant]

Stories From Around the Country

Woman held on $300 bail dies after five months in Texas jail: Janice Dotson-Stephens died in the Bexar County, Texas, jail Friday. Dotson-Stephens, 61 years old, had been jailed since July on a misdemeanor trespassing charge because she could not pay $300 bail. It was her first arrest. KSAT 12 reported that officials with the Bexar County sheriff’s office “have not said why Dotson-Stephens stayed in the jail so long, since a $30 payment would have likely been all it took to release her on bond.” She was arrested July 17 and not assigned a court-appointed attorney until Aug. 8. A judge ordered a psychological evaluation Aug. 27, 10 days after she refused to appear in court. [Dillon Collier / KSAT 12]

Officers who snatched a 1-year-old from his mother’s arms did nothing wrong, according to the NYPD: The NYPD Internal Affairs bureau has decided that the officers who tugged Jazmine Headley’s 1-year-old son out of her arms at a public benefits office in Brooklyn and then waved a Taser at the group of horrified witnesses did nothing wrong. Headley was arrested on misdemeanor charges that were dismissed last week and was at Rikers Island for four nights, away from her child. A video of NYPD and security guards’ treatment of her and her baby led to widespread outrage and condemnation. Politico reports that the the Internal Affairs investigation has yielded three policy recommendations: “guidelines for interactions between NYPD and HRA [Human Resources Administration] officers, summoning an NYPD supervisor when police respond to calls at HRA facilities and reviewing tactics and training programs for situations in which police officers encounter someone holding a young child.” [Rosa Goldensohn / Politico] On Thursday, Headley notified the city of her intention to sue. [Ashley Southall and Nikita Stewart / New York Times]

North Carolina counties quit ICE program: Mecklenburg and Wake counties, home to Charlotte and Raleigh, withdrew from ICE’s 287(g) program, which authorizes local law enforcement to research the immigration status of individuals detained at the county jail. The two counties’ new Democratic sheriffs had pledged to curtail cooperation with ICE in their successful challenges to incumbent sheriffs. The Appeal: Political Report examines the landscape of 287(g) in North Carolina in the wake of this dual announcement. Four counties are still participating in the program. But the new Republican sheriff of Henderson County has said that he is undecided about whether to continue in 2019; the immigrants’ rights groups Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción and El Centro are organizing against the program in the county. [Daniel Nichanian: The Appeal: Political Report]

Prosecutors in St. Louis County want to join the police union: Wesley Bell replaced seven-term incumbent Bob McCulloch as St. Louis County prosecuting attorney in November. McCulloch, who had held the position since 1991, presided over the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, one in a pattern of cases in which he did not press charges against officers who killed Black men. Bell, a former public defender and Ferguson City Council member, ran on a progressive platform with commitments to end cash bail, not seek the death penalty, and seek the appointment of a special prosecutor in cases of police shootings. (Our newsletter of Aug. 7 looked at Bell’s candidacy.) Now, assistant prosecutors are trying to join the police officer’s union with a vote scheduled for today. Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes that, “The timing is odd, if not outrageous.” Bell’s chief-of-staff told Messenger that, “The timing is curious. For 28 years the employees have not unionized, and I noticed this happened just after the voters demanded sweeping change.” [Tony Messenger / St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

Protester who climbed the Statue of Liberty goes on trial today: Therese Patricia Okoumou’s federal trial in the Southern District of New York begins today. Okoumou climbed the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July to protest the separation of immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. She is charged with three misdemeanors, including trespassing and disorderly conduct. The trial will be before a judge, not a jury, and she faces a maximum of 18 months in prison if found guilty on all three charges. Okoumou told PIX 11 that she looked forward to the opportunity “not only to talk to the judge but to the whole world as I did on the Fourth of July to remind everyone that we have children in cages and there are still a lot of children in cages.” [Nora Abramov and James Ford / PIX 11]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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