Governing Body Approval

Governing Body Approval

Requiring agencies to get the approval of the local governing body before acquiring advanced surveillance equipment assures transparency and accountability.

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Acquiring and operating a new surveillance system is a policy choice – a significant one. Surveillance equipment is often costly to purchase, maintain, and upgrade, and it gives the agencies (and individual staff members) who use it a great deal of power to monitor the activities of others. As with any major policy choice, there should be public accountability for a decision to deploy advanced surveillance.  Agencies interested in acquiring surveillance tools should get the approval of their elected governing body before doing so.
In addition to input from community forums and advice from experts and local leaders, there should be a standard and democratic process for  approving the acquisition of surveillance technology. This ensures that everyone in the community who has ideas or concerns has an opportunity to voice them. It also ensures that the elected officials responsible for managing and overseeing local agencies have a clear idea of what the  agencies will be doing with surveillance equipment. 
In some instances it may be advisable for the governing body to adopt an ordinance with rules to regulate use of a new surveillance system.  Often, the system can be approved through the normal budgetary process; In most jurisdictions, a specific line item in the local government budget appropriating money for a new system gives elected officials the opportunity to ask appropriate questions and community members the opportunity to comment. To ensure transparency, the governing body should adopt an ordinance that establishes a  process for approving new surveillance technology, and a set of general parameters for how the technology should be used.  (Find a model surveillance ordinance here.)
Developing policy, overseeing bureaucracies, and choosing how to spend public dollars is the job of elected leaders. The best way to ensure that surveillance technology is used in a fair, legal, transparent, and cost-effective way – if at all – is to ensure that it’s subject to the  democratic process.
Questions to Ask:
  • Have elected leaders had the opportunity to host, or participate in, the public forums that every community should hold when considering new surveillance infrastructure?
  • Have elected leaders become familiar with how the technology under consideration works?
  • Have elected leaders had the opportunity to review, revise, and approve legally-binding use policies for the technology under consideration?
  • Has the governing body held hearings to determine the financial costs and weigh the risks of acquiring technology in order to gather public input?
  • Will elected leaders have the opportunity to vote to approve or reject the acquisition of the technology?
  • Will elected leaders have the opportunity to vote to approve or reject any changes to the use policies, any upgrades, or any ongoing costs?

Examples of Use

  • Location:: 
    Portland, OR
    Surveillance camera plan rejected due to unanswered questions

    In 2012, police in Portland, Oregon, sought city commission approval to institute a new video surveillance program in the city’s historic Old Town and Chinatown neighborhoods, insisting that these areas were hotbeds of illegal drug deals and occasional violent crimes. Under the program, private businesses would contract with the police department to install cameras at no cost, and officers would be able to access the video feeds of these cameras from their smartphones. However, the department was not yet able to say how many cameras would be installed and where, or to articulate exactly how the video feeds would (or would not) be monitored. Some community members objected that while the cameras could pose a significant risk to the privacy of people walking down the street, evidence was lacking that they would actually be effective in deterring crime. One commissioner raised concerns that that the ordinance approving the program would conflict with existing privacy law. Ultimately, the commission rejected the program, telling the department to return to the drawing board to address the questions that had been raised.