The American Civil Liberties Union announced Wednesday the launch of a legislative effort in 11 cities across the United States — including Pensacola — to address the use of electronic surveillance technologies by police.
In recent years, law enforcement agencies across the country have increasingly utilized electronic surveillance technologies, including so-called “Stingray” devices, which mimic cellphone towers in order to allow police to intercept cellular communications. Other technologies targeted by the initiative include automatic license plate readers, facial recognition technology, social media monitoring software, and gunshot detection devices like ShotSpotter.
The decisions by local law enforcement to use such surveillance technologies are often made without any public input or public debate about the privacy concerns or cost of such programs to taxpayers, ACLU officials said.
The new initiative — called Community Control Over Police Surveillance or CCOPS — includes the introduction of legislation in each of the 11 cities which would require public hearings and city council approval before police departments could use such technologies. Pensacola’s ordinance will be sponsored by Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn.
“We need an ordinance that governs, not just a policy,” said Cannada-Wynn. “Policies changes through simple discussions; ordinances require government transparency, accountability, and public input. If Pensacola is to continue to be a leader in the region and even the state, we need an ordinance.”
Cannada-Wynn says she plans to work with her fellow council members and Chief of Police David Alexander on an ordinance that allows the city’s law enforcement to address crime but also makes clear when and how local law enforcement monitors the community.
In addition to public input and council approval, the ordinance would also require annual reporting of city departments’ purchase, use, impact, and Florida Sunshine Law compliance of stealth surveillance technology, a news release said.
“This issue didn’t just arise,” said Keyontay Humphries, an ACLU regional organizer based in Pensacola. “For decades, political and social justice leaders and their organizations have been victims of government surveillance. It has escalated to the point that we’re now seeing technology used in war being used on civilians right here in our communities. This is an opportunity for Pensacola to lead the nation in engaging citizens in decisions about if and how surveillance technologies are acquired and used locally.”
Police surveillance in Pensacola
It’s unclear which of the surveillance technologies targeted by the ACLU initiative may have been utilized by area law enforcement, and city officials aren’t willing to say.
“On the advice of counsel, we will refrain from providing specifics on current police surveillance technology,” city spokesman Vernon Stewart said Wednesday. Neither the police department nor Mayor Ashton Hayward’s office had a comment about the ACLU initiative.
Documents obtained by the ACLU in 2015 showed that the Pensacola Police Department had used a Stingray device, apparently on loan from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in connection with at least five cases. PPD officials said at the time that the department had not purchased any Stingray devices itself.
Pensacola police officers also began to wear body cameras in 2015. While many have hailed the cameras as a tool for greater police transparency and accountability, some advocates have stressed the need for policies which address privacy concerns. PPD officials did consult with the local ACLU chapter when drafting their internal policy, said Humphries.
Initiative to be expanded to other cities
Aside from Pensacola, the other ten cities announced Wednesday as part of the initiative include New York City; Washington, D.C.; Seattle, Wash.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Madison, Wis.; Miami Beach, Fla.; Richmond, Va.; Muskegon, Mich.; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Hattiesburg, Miss.
The ACLU is working with officials in a number of other cities to prepare similar legislation, and officials expect to announce a second wave of cities in the near future.
“The use of surveillance by local police has been spreading unchecked across the country without regard for the communities that they purport to serve,” said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero. “Today, communities and their local elected officials are taking action to address the disparate impact, financial burden, and threats to civil rights and liberties posed by invasive surveillance technologies.”
The CCOPS initiative — developed in partnership with the NAACP, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Campaign Zero, and the Tenth Amendment Center, along with other organizations — has eight guiding principles:
- Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without express and specific city council approval.
- Local communities should play a significant and meaningful role in determining if and how surveillance technologies are funded, acquired, or used.
- The process for considering the use of surveillance technologies should be transparent and well-informed.
- The use of surveillance technologies should not be approved generally; approvals, if provided, should be for specific technologies and specific, limited uses.
- Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without addressing their potential impact on civil rights and civil liberties.
- Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without considering their financial impact.
- To verify legal compliance, surveillance technology use and deployment data should be reported publicly on an annual basis.
- City council approval should be required for all surveillance technologies and uses; there should be no “grandfathering” for technologies currently in use.