Police Accountability Board Discusses Police Body Camera and Automatic License Plate Readers

Members of the Berkeley Police Accountability Board (PAB) discussed the importance of confidentiality and privacy in relation to technology such as police body cameras and automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) during their meeting on February 23rd. 

The agenda included the review of revisions made by Vice Chair Nathan Mizell on a policy for Body Worn Cameras to increase PAB’s access to footage.

During this discussion, Director Katherine Lee brought up the topic of the grantage of police body camera footage during ongoing criminal investigations. The members conversed about the consequences of the Board not having access to footage. Chairman Michael Chang compared the granting of footage for viewing to the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, by saying, “with FOIA it is a member of the public requesting information from a government agency, and the rationale for the exemption for releasing information during an enforcement proceeding is that it could then hamper the enforcement proceeding.”

He continued by bringing in the PAB’s role, stating that “obviously we’re not the public, we’re the PAB, which is an independent police commission. Not getting that information could hamper our ability to conduct an investigation thoroughly and transparently.”

Elisa Batista, who had been nominated by Councilmember Terry Taplin to fill in for Member Regina Harris, supported the Chair’s opinion. 

“It’s part of the mission of this board: not just the accountability of the police, but transparency too. [Some of these cases] could take years to solve, and it is important that the PAB has access to that information”, she said. With little arguments from the rest of the members, the Board voted to support the revisions made by Mizell. 

The mention of members keeping police information confidential during the previous topic prompted Member Deborah Levine to share an idea. She suggested implementing consequences for a breach in information in order to “give the police department some comfort that we take our duty of confidentiality very seriously.” Everyone agreed with this idea, and they decided that the offending member would be terminated from the Board.

Following the approval of those revisions was the process of reviewing Berkeley Police Department’s proposed ALPR use policy, and revisions on this proposal from Councilmembers Kate Harrison and Terry Taplin. The main issue tied to these revisions was that of privacy, and concerns over the use of this technology in criminal investigations. 

Member Cheryl Owens quelled concerns over privacy by clarifying how the technology functioned. “It’s basically reading the license plate”, she said. “It’s sort of like when you drive across the bridge and FasTrack takes the picture, it’s the same basic technology. So it is not capturing faces or anything like that.”

Member Kitty Calavita continued the discussion by voicing support for the changes made to the document, specifically the change that limited the use of this tech to parking violations, and therefore rejecting the expansion into criminal investigations. She cited research she had conducted which conveyed that “it is not at all definitive that it has any effect on reducing crime.”

Owens was more divided on this issue. She offered, “I know that it could be a good tool for them to use to potentially solve crimes. I agree that I don’t think it is a deterrent, but it is a tool that could be used to place someone in a certain location where crime occurs.”

In contrast, Mizell was very much against the use of this technology in criminal investigations. “That argument [of the technology’s benefit] could be used with literally any item in the history of policing that has been used as an excuse to expand policing technologies that have no requisite benefit to the citizens (and harm communities of color and other marginalized communities).” 

After Calavita answered that ALPRs, in areas where they are currently in use, have only been used for parking incidents and not criminal incidents, Owens decided to fully support Harrison’s proposal.

The Board unanimously voted to ‘continue to support’ Taplin’s proposal.

Other topics of note included the discussions of subcommittees for Lexipol policies review and the PAB budget review. Multiple members voiced interest in joining, but stressed concerns about work overload from being on too many subcommittees. Due to these concerns and wishes to prioritize current subcommittees, the formation of them was postponed until more individuals have time.

–Kesenia Goldstein

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