Technology

ACLU bills would require transparency on police surveillance

Posted 1:49 p.m. Wednesday
Updated 1:50 p.m. Wednesday

— Bills being introduced in nearly a dozen cities will aim to force police departments to disclose the surveillance technologies they use, the American Civil Liberties Union and other transparency advocates announced Wednesday.

The legislative effort is meant to counter what they call a culture of secrecy surrounding police department surveillance.

"These technologies are invading our public spaces and creating a culture of fear," Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, said in a statement. "This first wave of legislative efforts being taken today across the country is a critical first step to moving local surveillance out of the shadows, ensuring transparency and accountability, and protecting the civil rights of all Americans."

The cities where bills will be introduced include the District of Columbia; New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Richmond, Virginia; Seattle; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Madison, Wisconsin; Miami Beach, Florida; Muskegon, Michigan; Palo Alto, California; and Pensacola, Florida.

ACLU officials said local leaders in these communities were pushing the legislation and that other cities would be added to the effort.

"You have blue and red jurisdictions, more urban like New York City, more suburban and rural," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said on a conference call. "This is the type of reform that can take place and ought to take place in any community across the country."

In the cities where police have released data about their surveillance operations, the technology has been used disproportionately in communities of color and low-income areas, advocates said.

Police did describe their surveillance programs in Baltimore — but only after their existence was first revealed by Bloomberg Businessweek.

The police commissioner confirmed last month that his department had been using a surveillance plane to capture images creating a chronological record of the streets below, so that analysts could zoom in on crime scenes and follow suspects back and forth in time. The technology, funded by a wealthy couple's donation to a non-profit, was used without informing the mayor, state's attorney, other city officials or the public.

The legislation would call for surveillance technology to be acquired and funded only with city council approval. Advocates are also seeking community input in how surveillance systems are funded and where they're used.

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.

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