Engage the Community

Engage the Community

Engaging the whole community in deciding whether to acquire advanced surveillance equipment helps prevent backlash and can provide ideas and perspectives that officials might not have considered.

Communities are increasingly concerned about making sure that time, energy and resources are not spent on expensive, ineffective and overly intrusive surveillance systems that create more problems than they solve. That’s why public transparency and engagement are key to any decision about whether to use surveillance technology.

John Avalos, San Francisco City Supervisor
Local law enforcement agencies need the trust of the community they serve to be effective. But that trust can be seriously eroded when members of the public discover that new surveillance tools are in use without  having been informed of their acquisition or given the opportunity for input on the decision to acquire. The City of Seattle, for instance, faced a angry backlash when residents found out that the city had installed new surveillance cameras along a popular beach without advance notice (and that the cameras could be positioned to peer inside private homes). That backlash led to the indefinite suspension of the whole project after money had already been spent.
Departments and local governments should begin engaging key stakeholders before the equipment is acquired, the system is used, or any grant funding is sought that way, government can be sure that it won’t waste time and money on a project that will have to be delayed or canceled due to public backlash.  Community organizations can inform their membership,  while local media can reach a wide general audience. The public should be viewed as a valuable resource: Community members may have technical, legal, or other expertise that can help the department protect surveillance data from hackers, point out a conflict with state or federal law, and more.
In addition, there should be  a hearing or community meeting where all interested residents  have the opportunity to make their concerns known. Detailed information should be distributed in advance about the technology under consideration, its capabilities, its short- and long-term costs, the specific uses to which it will be put, and how the department intends to protect the privacy of innocent people. (Special efforts should be made to engage people in neighborhoods where  the technology is expected to be most used.)
Further, the public should be included in ongoing oversight and review of the use of surveillance tools.  Over time, actively seeking community input will forge important relationships between law enforcement and neighborhood leaders, technology experts, and civil rights advocates.
Questions to Ask:
  • Are the purposes for which government needs the technology clearly defined?
  • Which communities will be most impacted by the use of this technology?
  • Which organizations or individuals are most likely to have strong positive or negative feelings about using this technology for law enforcement?
  • Who has technological, legal, financial, or other technical expertise that could be useful in developing use policies and estimating long-term costs?
  • How can government reach all the community members who might be interested?
  • Have elected policymakers been given enough time to consult with their constituents and advisers?
  • Has the public enough technical information to provide meaningful input?

Examples of Use

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    Los Angeles, CA
    Citizens Privacy Council formed in California city

    The City of Redlands, CA, has created a permanent Citizens Privacy Council to review the use of surveillance tools by the police department. Composed entirely of volunteers, the council meets monthly to review the surveillance activities of the Redlands Police Department and discuss their impact on privacy, civil rights, and public safety. Based on those discussions, the council advises the police chief and public on surveillance use policies and other means of protecting the privacy of innocent people. The council is open to anyone, and has served as both a voice for the community and a valuable means of helping the police department engage the public on surveillance issues. If  government   intends to invest in advanced surveillance technology, it may make sense to create an independent citizens’ committee that is empowered to call public meetings, review surveillance activities, comment on surveillance use policies, and advise law enforcement officials and elected leaders.

  • Map of California featuring Los Angeles
    Los Angeles, CA
    Homeland security grants: not just for homeland security anymore

    When the Los Angeles Police Department applied for a Department of Homeland Security grant to purchase a StingRay, a electronic surveillance tool that vacuums up data from cell phones in its vicinity, it promised that it would use the device for “regional terrorism investigations.” However, a public records investigation by the California First Amendment Coalition found that during a single-four month period in 2012, the LAPD used the device 21 times in ordinary, local drug investigations. In fact, the records show that in 2013, the LAPD used the StingRay in 13 percent of all of its “cellular phone investigations.” Increasingly, privacy advocates and elected officials regard local departments’ claims that they need advanced equipment to fight terror with skepticism. As one Keene, NH, city councilor told the Boston Globe, “Our application [for money to buy an armored personnel carrier] talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that’s just something you put in the grant application to get the money.”