As cities struggle with tight budgets, many police departments are turning to technology to leverage law enforcement efforts.

Technological assists come in many different forms, from video cameras and gunshot detection systems to stingray cellphone trackers, license plate readers and even facial recognition — the latter being extremely controversial.

All of these have potential to help police, compensating in some cases for an insufficient number of officers. And some, like body cameras, can add a new layer of accountability to policing.

But technology can also have the opposite effect, driving new wedges between police and citizens if it is seen as primarily a way to invade citizen privacy. This is especially true if the department is already widely distrusted, as is the case in Vallejo.

By the numbers:

VALLEJO:
Population – 121,692 (2019)
VPD sworn – Just over 100 (not including command staff)

OAKLAND:
Population – 433,031 (2019)
OPD sworn numbers – Over 700

SAN FRANCISCO:
Population – 881,549 (2019) 
SFPD sworn numbers – 2,208 (includes chief and command staff)

RICHMOND:
Population – 110,567 (2019)
RPD sworn – 145 (2018)

For more than a decade, Vallejo has attempted to regain staffing levels it experienced prior to filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in May 2008. The city’s police force shrank to 90 sworn personnel – which included the chief of police and his command staff of two police captains and six lieutenants – by fiscal year 2010-11; that was down from 158 budgeted positions, including 103 police officers, from the 2002-03 fiscal year. 

Over time, the city has slowly rebuilt the police force, which this year numbers 131, including the chief and command staff.

But with total officers still almost 20 percent fewer in number than at their peak, the Vallejo Police Department has turned increasingly to technology as a way to leverage its resources.

“The VPD is using technology like never before in the department,” Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams said earlier this year in a March 9 staff report to the City Council.

Beginning last year and at Williams’ urging, the city partnered with the Atlanta-based firm Flock Safety to place automated license plate readers throughout the city. This year, the City Council approved additional readers after receiving a $30,000 grant from the federal Urban Areas Security Initiative. The new readers will be installed around the Vallejo Ferry Terminal and at a nearby parking garage.

“These locations are centrally located and include high amounts of pedestrian/vehicular traffic, community events and access to commuter water ways,” Williams wrote in a report to the City Council. “This lends this area to be perceived as a target for anyone wishing to initiate a mass casualty event.”

The chief has also convinced the council to spend $750,000 on a portable mobile phone surveillance device, known as a stingray, to help track suspects. 

Vallejo Police Chief, Shawny Williams

All cellphones actively ping a cell tower allowing the user to call, text and use data. A stingray masquerades as a tower, causing nearby cellphones to ping the device instead. Law enforcement is then able to obtain each phone’s unique international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) number, which can be used to track the location of the phone and even intercept the content of voice and text transmissions.

Vallejo police used the tower simulator 32 times between June and November 2020, with many of the searches connected to homicide cases, according to a deployment log provided by the department. The device was used 11 times during the first three months of 2021.

Williams has also changed departmental policy for body-worn cameras, replacing “should” with “shall” in language requiring officers to turn them on when responding to a call for service.

The new policy came as Vallejo approved a new $1.5 million contract with Axon Enterprise Inc. for 130 body-worn cameras, Tasers and video management software. 

The change also came after the city had approved a $175,000 settlement with a Vallejo couple who filed an excessive force lawsuit against the city and two of its officers. 

Responding to a report of a domestic dispute in December 2015, Vallejo police officers Robert DeMarco and Amanda Blain failed to activate their body cameras during the incident. Compounding the problem, both officers also went on to file reports that didn’t match. Without video evidence, questions were raised over how one of the people involved, Joseph Ledesma, came out of the situation with broken arms and a fractured shin.

While some welcome all of the new technology, others question its use by a department with a poor reputation in the community and in the absence of proper oversight.

In order to overcome such distrust, oversight might follow the example set by Oakland, which has gone to some length to ensure new technologies are used responsibly. 

For starters, Oakland created a Privacy Advisory Commission five years ago. The commission, which reviews all city regulations and policies about Oakland’s purchase and use of surveillance equipment, was created in response to community backlash over the Domain Awareness Center (DAC). The center started as a security project at the airport and Oakland port, but then began collecting and reviewing surveillance data throughout the city. 

“I think (the Privacy Advisory Commission) can be replicated anywhere,” said Joe DeVries, director of interdepartmental operations for the city of Oakland. “It creates a public process on how tech is used and ensures that usage reports are crafted.”

DeVries said while the police department gets a lot of attention from the commission, other city departments, like the fire department and public works, are also under scrutiny to ensure they have use policies on file as well.

Following the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire in December 2016, the city’s fire department began using automated technology while inspecting buildings, which required a use policy and a way to safeguard the data, DeVries explained.

The Ghost Ship warehouse fire in December 2016 killed 36 people. (Photo by Jim Heaphy/Wikipedia)

He also noted the need for use policies when the public works department installed cameras to capture illegal dumping, or the transportation department began using cameras for parking enforcement.

Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, said civilian oversight is needed when it comes to policies about technology.

Hofer also believes that such commissions can hold police departments accountable in other cities, including Vallejo, since the commission has specialized expertise in such matters.

“Elected officials are out in the dark like most of the public (when it comes to technology),” Hofer said.

DeVries agreed, stating that “a city council can’t get into the nitty-gritty of technology. You need someone minding the shop – a group of people paying attention to the process.” 

The City of Oakland Police Station at 455 7th Street in Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (Keith Burbank/Bay City News)

Earlier this year, the city of Oakland also became one of the first municipalities to ban biometric surveillance and predictive policing and technology. Last July, while protests were ongoing following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Oakland City Council responded to a push from the Privacy Advisory Commission and banned the use of facial recognition technology. 

Predictive policing analyzes data to anticipate or predict where crime might take place and attempt to stop it from happening. It takes data from previous crimes, including season, types of victims, and the time of day to predict where crime might occur. The police department is then able to deploy officers to certain areas of the city where crime is expected to take place.

Meanwhile, many cities have banned the use of biometric data — like facial recognition technology – after the technology falsely accused people of crimes.

Vallejo police conceded last spring that the department was one of hundreds nationwide to use facial recognition provided on a free test basis by Clearview AI, which makes the devices. The city said it had discontinued the trial.

In San Francisco, the use of facial recognition technology has been banned since May 2019, in response to concerns about the potential for abuse by the police department and other local agencies. And San Francisco’s Privacy and Surveillance Advisory Board evaluates surveillance technologies used by the city and county of San Francisco. The board, which is composed of San Francisco officials and a member of the public, reports to the Committee on Information Technology (COIT), which is tasked with making decisions about San Francisco’s use of technology. 

“I don’t trust any police department to police themselves. I think everyone benefits from oversight,” said Mike Katz-Lacabe, research director for Oakland Privacy, a citizens’ coalition that seeks to protect the public’s privacy regarding surveillance techniques and equipment.

Despite the oversight and selective bans, controversy over surveillance technologies continues to bubble up.

Automated license plate readers (ALPRs), for example, are clearly a useful tool for police, but they sometimes result in unnecessary and frightening stops by police, with the dangers that go with them.

“ALPRs are the most overhyped technology ever,” Hofer said. “Just because there is a hit, doesn’t mean it will lead to an arrest.”

And Hofer’s views are rooted in personal experience. He received a $49,500 payout last August from the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office after being detained at gunpoint with his brother in November 2019. A plate reader located near the San Pablo Lytton Casino off Interstate Highway 80 informed law enforcement that the car the men were riding in was stolen. In fact, the rental car Hofer was driving had been stolen at one point but the rental car agency hadn’t informed authorities when the vehicle was recovered.

A similar situation arose in 2009 when Denise Green, a 45-year-old San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency employee, was wrongfully stopped because a license plate reader had flagged her vehicle as stolen. In 2015, San Francisco paid her a $495,000 settlement. 

ShotSpotter, which listens for the sound of gunshots and alerts police to the approximate location of the shooting, is another helpful technology that can backfire if employed overzealously.

A diagram showing how ShotSpotter Respond works. (Photo courtesy ShotSpotter)

Oakland’s DeVries is a supporter of the device, which has been deployed in more than 100 cities over the past few years, including Oakland. It is one way authorities attempt to make cities safer by improving response times to gunfire.

“Dozens of shooting victims were found because of the technology,” DeVries said. “About 90 percent of the shots fired were never reported by people. It has saved lives and also helped to solve murders.”

Yet concerns remain. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that between 2013 to 2015, ShotSpotter sent San Francisco police to the wrong location roughly 20 percent of the time, and a significant number of alerts were false positives. 

Acoustic experts work in a ShotSpotter Incident Review Center. (Photo courtesy ShotSpotter)

An additional concern is transparency in data collection. Experts say that even with a commission, board or group of concerned citizens working to keep police departments transparent, access to the data collected can be difficult. And without the data, it’s difficult to say whether such technology actually reduces crime. 

“The vendor is usually the easiest source of accessing the data,” said Hofer, who added that technology like automated license plate readers usually targets a minute section of the population.

In Vallejo, police send license plate images they collect to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), where they are kept for a year and are made available to law enforcement agencies. According to a 2019 report, out of 150 personnel at the Vallejo Police Department, 102 had access to the data.

That situation prompted privacy concerns at The Center for Human Rights and Privacy, which reported that from July to December 2019 alone, Vallejo sent more than 5 million images to the NCRIC.

Katz-Lacabe said that about 99 percent of the data collected from license plate readers nationally is not associated with someone who has committed a crime.

“That’s a lot of money for a small group of people,” Katz-Lacabe said, adding it isn’t clear if the technology actually reduces crime.

Nonetheless, Vallejo’s Chief Williams, hired in November 2019, has pushed for the addition of police technology as a way to supplement a still-depleted police force, successfully lobbying the City Council to approve technologies that include officer body-worn cameras, the placement of dozens of automated license plate readers throughout the city, and the stingray cell-site simulator. 

During a City Council meeting in March 2020, Williams said technology like the stingray is necessary to reduce crime in the city.

“This technology, for a short-staffed police department, is a force multiplier that will help us for crime reduction,” Williams said about the stingray.

Vallejo PD’s willingness to release the logs showing its use of the cell-site simulator has drawn praise, with Katz-Lacabe calling it “a good encouraging sign.”

The Vallejo Police Department sign on Amador St. in Vallejo, Calif., on July 7. 2021 (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

However, Katz-Lacabe also worries that the stingray might be used during a protest as police gathered information from the crowd.

And last year the Oakland Privacy watchdog group filed a lawsuit in Solano County Superior Court arguing the city violated state law when the council voted to acquire the technology without public input. The group won a preliminary ruling, forcing the city to change its policies regarding use of the stingray. State law requires law enforcement agencies to create a usage policy for use of cell-site simulators and undergo a public approval process.

Recently, Vallejo has begun the process of creating an advisory ad-hoc police technology citizens committee. Early indications suggest the committee will include one Vallejo resident from each of the six district areas within the city, plus two volunteer police technology experts and two designees from the Vallejo Police Department.

Raquel Ortega, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California who has advocated for such a committee, says it’s imperative that the community have a say over new surveillance technologies.

“The control of police technology should be in the hands of residents,” Oretga said. “We know the City Council is overwhelmed with a lot – they are not technology experts.”

And Katz-Lacabe argues for a balanced approach, saying he wants to see educated oversight on Vallejo’s new ad-hoc committee. 

“It has to be well-informed oversight – not a bunch of anti-police persons,” he added.


Lessons from Bay Area Police Reform; Looking at Past Practice, Future Potential in Vallejo

The San Francisco Bay Area is fertile ground to investigate the role of policing in diverse communities and police violence against Black and other people of color — and to learn what has worked to cut that violence while ensuring safety in these communities. With 8 million people, the Bay Area is a diverse region made up of separate jurisdictions that have different experiences with police reform efforts, some longer-standing (Oakland and Richmond), others more recent (San Francisco), and one just announced (Vallejo). With this as a backdrop, we applied a solutions journalism lens to evaluate four types of policing reforms that have been attempted, with mixed results, to achieve more public safety, more community trust, and less police violence.

Read the rest of the series:

This series was reported by John Glidden, edited by Dan Rosenheim and funded by Solutions Journalism Network.