Illustration by Kayla Coulter.
As it stands, the Long Beach Police Department has the ability to access technologies which could be used to monitor the movements of residents — without oversight. Local activists and residents are speaking up to demand that use of these technologies be stopped.
The LBPD is receiving criticism for its use of numerous surveillance technologies that they claim aid in their investigations. As city commissions are preparing recommendations to the city council for how they should regulate these technologies, community organizers are stepping up to say that regulation isn’t enough.
The surveillance technologies that are the focuses of critique include facial recognition technology and license plate readers, among more. Due to the lack of rules around these technologies, the LBPD is able to use these without oversight and transparency.
In response, the Technology and Innovation Commission and Equity and Human Relations Commission have both been holding discussions to consider how to regulate the police department’s use of these devices. It’s at these meetings that organizers have spoken up in an effort to influence these recommendations.
While the Technology and Innovation Commission has already drafted recommendations, the Equity and Human Relations Commission will be discussing their recommendations for the council at their June 1 meeting.
The Technology and Innovation Commission’s recommendations consist of the creation of an independent data privacy commission to oversee use of surveillance technology, a moratorium on facial recognition technology, and the adoption “of a surveillance vetting framework,” per a presentation given by commission members.
“I want to emphasize that there is no softer, kinder way of racially profiling BIPOC communities,” Jamilet Ochoa said at the April 6 equity commission meeting. “In these recommendations I see that there is a pause. A pause is a band-aid, what we really need are solutions… We need a ban on these technologies. I hold off on ‘oversight’ because there is no softer, kinder version of racism.”
Ochoa is a community organizer with the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition, a local organization that advocates for the needs of immigrant communities. LBIRC and other organizations have been advocating for a full ban of these technologies due to their disproportionate impact on communities of color, their invasion of privacy, and their large cost.
Per a fact sheet from Just Futures Law and the LBIRC, the LBPD has spent hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars on each of these technologies. The department has even used free trials with companies like Vigilant Solutions for use of facial recognition, though it claims to now only use the Los Angeles County Regional Identification System.
Their partnership with Vigilant Solutions received criticism when it was found that Vigilant allowed agencies like Immigrant and Customs Enforcement to access data uploaded to the service, despite local and state ordinances forbidding local agencies from doing so.
The use of the technology itself has also received criticism for the technology being known to incorrectly identify people, particularly people of color. A Detroit police chief had previously admitted to facial recognition systems being wrong 96% of the time, and the technology incorrectly identified two Black men who were arrested by the Detroit Police Department.
“All of the money that we’re spending on these technologies could be better spent on increasing libraries and parks,” resident Caitlin Bellis said at the commission’s May 11 meeting. “I think the unbelievable budget that the police have is reflective of their power but these technologies will just increase that power beyond even what they have now.”
These findings counter the commonly used talking point from police departments and service suppliers that these technologies do not discriminate, which Technology and Innovation Commissioner Gwen Shaffer said is something her commission was told by Mark Dolfi, a biometrics trainer for LACRIS, the database mugshot currently used by LBPD.
“He made the point that the algorithm does not see skin color or gender or anything else like that,” said Technology and Innovation Commissioner Gwen Shaffer. “He described it to us as the algorithm first identifying the eyes, and then once it identifies the eyes, it is all facial features.”
Shaffer noted that their presentation is not a reflection of their commission’s views, but rather those of the experts they spoke to. However, residents urged commissioners to not take these statements at face value, and consider hearing from more experts.
“I would urge you not to take LBPD at face value. They are not a neutral party here,” Bellis said during public comment at April 6 meeting. “When they say something like ’the algorithm doesn’t see skin color,’ that’s not just fact. And in fact research has consistently shown that algorithms are racially biased, in part because white people made them.”
The Equity and Human Relations Commission meets virtually via Zoom. Their next meeting is June 1, 2022 at 6 p.m. To comment on the item, join the meeting. The meeting link and email address for submitting written comments can be found at the meeting agenda.