Civil Liberties

Does Oakland Really Need a High-Tech 'Domain Awareness Center'? Evidence Suggests Surveillance Doesn't Do Much to Affect Crime Rates

There are growing concerns about a project in the works to bring cutting-edge surveillance to a city plagued with old-fashioned crime.

Oakland, California, a city known as a hotbed of progressive politics, is about to deal a major blow to its residents' privacy rights in a very high-tech 21st-century way. Recently, Oakland City Council approved the next phase in building a Domain Awareness Center (DAC) for domestic surveillance. This push for high-tech surveillance comes in the midst of growing evidence that suggests it has little effect on crime rates, according to recent studies from organizations like the ACLU and the Urban Institute.

The DAC will aggregate and monitor video feeds and real-time data from nearly 1,000 cameras and sensors aimed at anyone, including those not suspected of any wrongdoing, throughout Oakland. This includes cameras and sensors at the Oakland port, on the highway, in schools, and other locations. Additionally, the DAC will analyze the aggregate data with other software, such as license plate recognition, thermal imaging, social media feeds, gunshot detectors, and other information along with 24/7 monitoring and geospatial security mapping. It will also store and allow sharing of data. Initially, it was planned for planned for the protection of the Port of Oakland, which is one of the busiest ports in the country. But since the project began in 2009, plans have shifted to cover the entire city. 

On July 30, Oakland City Council unanimously approved a $2 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security for Phase 2 in building the surveillance system. The total project will cost $10.9 million through DHS grants. 

Science Applications International Corporation, a military contractor, was selected as the company to build the surveillance system earlier in the process. Recently, however, it was revealed that Science Applications International Corp. was connected to nuclear weapons. Oakland's Nuclear Free Zone Ordinance, passed in 1988, prohibits the city from doing business with companies that "knowingly engage in nuclear weapons work". 

The meeting in November was to decide on whether to give the $2 million grant to a new vendor. In a vote of 6 to 1, Oakland City Council approved the next step. The lone opposition vote came from Councilmember Lynette McElhaney. With this move, the city will choose from four contractors to build the surveillance system: Schneider Electric, Motorola Solutions, G4S, and GTSI. However, after a background check on these companies, East Bay Express reported that "all of them have obtained nuclear weapons related contracts from branches of the US military or from the US Department of Energy."

More than an hour before the meeting commenced, a crowd of around 80 to 100 people gathered outside Oakland City Council to rally against the DAC. Their opposition stemmed from concerns over how the surveillance system would violate the privacy rights of Oakland residents.  

At 6:30 p.m., the protesters marched into city council to voice their opposition to the DAC. Out of the 150 people who signed up to speak at the city council meeting, between 70 and 80 wanted to discuss surveillance. Protesters held a mic check in the middle of the meeting, around 9:00 p.m., criticizing the city council for pushing the DAC agenda item back. Yet, that issue still was tabled until the end of the meeting, well past 2:00 a.m. By then, many people left because they could not stay out that late. They had to wake up early the next day, go to work, or take care of other responsibilities. Further compounding this is the fact that Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the Bay Area's commuter rail system, does not run 24 hours. The last train runs at around 12:30 a.m.Additionally, reporters were kicked out by Oakland police when city council discussed the DAC agenda item. 

This is not the first time Oakland City Council stalled a contentious issue until the end of a meeting. At the July 30 meeting, the last time DAC was discussed, the issue was pushed back until late at night. Dee, a homeless Oakland resident who's been involved with civil liberties organizing and Occupy Oakland, explained "Usually, they'll [Oakland City Council] will put it at the end of the agenda. So that way, nobody wants to stay till the end. And if people do sign up, of the people who organized against that sort of thing, the numbers are going to die down as it continues, as the night goes on." This tactic makes it easier for the City Council to pass a controversial measure with dampened public opposition. 

Privacy concerns 

In light of the recent revelations about the depths of the NSA's spying on American citizens and people around the world, including leaders of allied countries, the biggest concern about the DAC is its potential to violate the privacy rights of Oakland residents, particularly those not suspected of any wrongdoing. Matt Kent, an Oakland resident and legal fellow with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a civil liberties watchdog organization, told AlterNet that the DAC poses a threat to the Fourth Amendment as "it's going to give the police massive access to huge network information systems that they did not previously have access to, without a warrant and without any particularized suspicion. And that's a huge issue. From a constitutional perspective, that's a tremendous issue."

The ACLU of Northern California condemned the DAC, saying that "Warrantless surveillance of Oakland residents violates constitutional privacy principles." In a letter to Oakland City Council, the ACLU urged the city to, at minimum, institute privacy protections before implementing the DAC. At the same time, the ACLU acknowledged the DAC's inherent contravention of basic privacy rights, noting that "there are serious questions about whether the long-term comprehensive surveillance enabled by the DAC can ever be conducted consistent with state and federal constitutional privacy protections, and whether certain uses of the DAC would trigger the need to obtain a warrant under the Fourth Amendment." 

Commissioner Sokhom Mao, a long-time Oakland resident, attended the city council to discuss adding funds for the Citizens' Police Review Board. While Mao was not part of the protest, his sentiments about the DAC were similar. He acknowledged that the DAC "can be a good tool only if it can be used for reducing crime", but expressed deep concerns about the system's potential to violate the privacy and civil liberties of Oakland residents. Mao said, "collecting private information and data on private citizens is a major concern, without their consent. We're talking about trampling over the civil liberties and rights of individual citizens." He later added, "The government can use that [data] for anything. It can fall into the wrong hands." Right now, he said, "we cannot continue to move forward" until privacy and related concerns are resolved. "At this point, I don't think it's a good idea." 

Fighting crime?

Councilmember Libby Schaaf, who is currently running for mayor, is among those who support the DAC. AlterNet was unable to directly reach council member Schaaf for comment. However, her community liaison Bruce Stoffmacher explained Schaaf's position to AlterNet, "Her attitude is that she wants to support the security of the city from that what the fire, police, and port are saying is needed. But at the same time, she is reaching out to the ACLU and civil liberty advocates and trying to hear all sides and see if there is a way to really promote more security but, at the same time, addressing the very legitimate sentiments" of the opposition. Schaaf and supporters of DAC argue that the system is necessary to help first responders, support law enforcement, and promote public safety. 

Oakland has been struggling to deal with its pervasive crime rates. Violent crime in Oakland increased 19.7% within a year, jumping from 6,652 in 2011 to 7,962. Recently, seven people were shot and wounded on an Oakland sidewalk. Such ongoing violence makes Oakland residents fearful in their own communities. Compounding matters is the fact that the Oakland Police Department remains understaffed for a major city. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "In 2012, Oakland had 1 officer for every 638 residents." While "Detroit had 1 officer for every 275 residents, and Baltimore had 1 officer for every 211 residents." Hence why the Department of Justice recently gave Oakland $4.5 million to hire 10 new police officers. 

However, there is little evidence showing that surveillance is a panacea for reducing crime. A report by the Urban Institute shows that video surveillance has mixed results in reducing crime in urban areas -- helping in some areas, while not so much in others. Looking at surveillance systems in three cities -- Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; and Washington, D.C. -- the study found that surveillance can work but it depends on how the system is set up and monitored. Yet, it also recommended privacy protections. 

On the other hand, an ACLU white paper discovered that "video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates." In addition, a study by New York University, based on research in Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, found that video surveillance did very little to deter crime. Other studies have found similar results, according to the New York Times. If anything, surveillance cameras seem to be more helpful after the fact, such as by corroborating testimony, rather than deterring crime before it happens. Moreover, if surveillance does work in some instances to tackle crime, the nextquestion would be: compared to what? 

Some critics decried Oakland's unsolved murders and crime lab dysfunctions. J.P. Massar, a resident of Berkeley, which closely neighbors Oakland, attended the meeting to protest the DAC's infringement on citizens' privacy rights. He told AlterNet, "It would be hundreds of times more effective in stopping crime to have a crime lab that worked to catch the murderers and the rapists and the people who assault people than to put surveillance cameras around."

According to a recent report in the East Bay Express, Oakland Police Department has spent more time dealing with drug crimes than homicide investigations. The city's crime lab director "informed the city council's Public Safety Committee last month that the department had 659 homicide cases in which it still had evidence that needed testing" and "homicide investigations are in such disarray that the lab has no idea which of the cases with unexamined evidence have been closed or adjudicated", reported East Bay Express. However, while Oakland's crime lab has dropped the ball on homicide investigations, "it has made drug arrests -- including minor drug arrests -- its top priority." The crime lab "has no backlog for narcotics evidence and processes 95 percent of all suspected drug cases within 24 hours, while allowing homicide case evidence to languish for years without being examined".

Crime linked to poverty and inequality 

In addition to crime, Oakland is plagued by poverty and other socio-economic problems, such as low-performing schools. According to the 2010 Census, poverty in Oakland is nearly 20%. Additionally, "32.7% percent of all Oakland children under the age of 18 in Oakland live in poverty", giving the city "the highest percentage of children living in poverty in the Bay Area,"according to a 2012 report by the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth.Moreover, "almost half of all Oakland children live in families where neither parent has full-time, year-round employment." 

The report also highlights that low-performing schools are primarily located in the largely low-income and nonwhite flatlands, while higher-performing schools are in the affluent and largely white Oakland hills. Oakland schools with "majority African-American and Latino student populations are lower-performing on average than the schools with a majority of white students". Crime also disproportionately impacts young people of color in Oakland with homicide being the leading cause of death for the city's youth. Much of it is related to gang activity, with most young people joining gangs through their family members. The report points out that "youth exposure to community violence is associated with an increase in aggressive behavior and depression" along with "lower self-esteem, higher anxiety, worse school performance and increased absences from school." This creates a cycle where poverty, inequality, and crime reinforce each other. 

Numerous studies have shown that poverty and inequality are major factors that drive crime. For example, the book The Spirit Level, written by epidemiologists Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, shows how inequality causes a myriad of social ills, such as drug abuse, mental illness, imprisonment, violence, obesity, and low life expectancy. 

Many critics of the DAC argue that addressing these socio-economic problems would do more to combat crime than surveillance. Dee called for "tackling the roots of crime", such as poverty, "being hungry, not having enough money, not being able to sleep." "Most crimes," he said, "are based on the actions of those individuals take to meet their needs." 

Yvonne Metiche, a teacher and Oakland resident, did not attend the city council meeting but felt similarly. She told AlterNet that "extreme segregation along economic and racial lines" are the roots of violence in Oakland. Noting the separation between the city's poor and well-off, Metiche pointed out that "violence and robberies are centralized to certain areas." The well-off, many of whom live in the affluent Oakland hills, "go along living their merry lives while folks in the flats are trying to survive and are killing each other." She argued that the emphasis of major cities like Oakland on policing and surveillance is "a waste" of money and resources that will only "put all of us under further criminalization."

Commissioner Mao decried Oakland's socio-economic problems and explained to AlterNet how such problems drive the city's crime. He said that many young people who commit crime in Oakland are also victims, as they experience "violence, neglect, abuse against them." As a result, "you get a lot of mental health, behavioral issues, and other personal issues within the young people that we don't address". This leads to "the victim becoming the victimizer" of the community around them. Mao said restorative justice and expanding "opportunities and resources" for young people are helpful to tackle the root cause of Oakland's crime.  

Surveillance stifling dissent 

In addition to privacy concerns, some fear that DAC surveillance could curb political dissent in Oakland. Kent warned that surveillance would "lead to people's lack of participation" in political protests, thus, leading to a "chilling effect" on dissent. In addition to the Fourth Amendment, Kent argued that surveillance impacts the First Amendment by "interfering with people's freedom to associate by, basically, putting the government between a public street and the public." He explained that if people know they are being watched, they become more apprehensive about going to demonstrations, even though such activity is protected by the U.S. Constitution. In fact, an ACLU study noted that "people who are being observed tend to behave differently, and make different decisions, than when they are not being watched."   

Daniel Borgström's experience provides evidence for such concerns. A Berkeley resident who attended the city council meeting to protest the DAC,Borgström was involved in Occupy Oakland and was among those arrested during the infamous police crackdown on January 28, 2012. Known as "J28", police kettled, fired tear gas, and mass arrested protesters who wanted to retake the encampments. The 72-year-old former U.S. Marine told AlterNet that Oakland police pointed a shotgun in his face and later arrested him but, later, was not charged with anything. "It wasn't just at me", he said, there were "a lot of police pointing a lot of shotguns at a lot of people." Borgström later filed a complaint to the city. Police confirmed that they did point a shotgun at him and claimed it was "proper and legal" for them to do so. Yet, Borgström was not given a full explanation as to why he was arrested and had a shotgun pointed at him, aside from police claiming that he and other protesters failed to disperse. Borgström refused to disperse because "I'm asserting my constitutional rights" by participating in a demonstration. 

This was not the only time police harshly cracked down on Occupy Oakland protesters. On October 25, 2011, Oakland police in riot gear violently raided Occupy Oakland, firing tear-gas and rubber bullets at protesters that created a scene nearly reminiscent of a war-zone. In fact, Mayor Quan admitted in a BBC interview that she and leaders of 18 cities discussed how to deal with the Occupy protests in a conference call. Scott Olsen, a U.S. Marine veteran of the Iraq war and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), was critically injured after being shot in the head by a bean-bag round. As rescuers came to assist Olsen, police fired a flash-bang grenade. Olsen suffered a fractured skull and brain trauma. Six months after the brutal crackdown, OPD acknowledged it shot Olsen. Olsen remains politically active, is healing, and working on a lawsuit against the city of Oakland and police department. 

Last year, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that "show massive nationwide monitoring, surveillance and information sharing between the Department of Homeland Security and local authorities in response to Occupy." However, "These heavily redacted documents don't tell the full story," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the PCJF. She stated, "They scratch the surface of a mass intelligence network including Fusion Centers, saturated with 'anti-terrorism' funding, that mobilizes thousands of local and federal officers and agents to investigate and monitor the social justice movement." 

As Oakland struggles with crime, poverty, inequality, and unsolved murders, it also has to grapple with a growing surveillance state is ineffective at keeping them safe but does undermine their basic civil liberties.