The City of Vallejo is set to put together an ad-hoc advisory board to monitor the use of surveillance technology here, primarily done by the police department.
Ideally the board will consist of a person from each district, two civil liberties experts, and a city staffer hand-picked by the mayor.
The Vallejo Police Department currently uses “stingray” technology, which are cell site simulators that allow law enforcement to “ping” off cellphones to locate specific suspects. Vallejo also has license plate readers scattered throughout the city which the VPD says are a help with locating suspects as well.
But without specific protocols and independent oversight, civil liberty watchdogs fear that surveillance can violate people’s Fourth Amendment rights. Mayor Robert McConnell suggested creating the board to increase transparency around the uses and practices of surveilling residents.
On Tuesday night, the council heard from a representative from the ACLU Northern California and Oakland Privacy, a nonprofit that sued Vallejo (and won) in order to get a required public-process period before implementing cell site simulators here.
The presenters — Tracy Rosenberg from Oakland Privacy and Raquel Ortega with the ACLU — outlined their recommendations for the board, which would meet one-to-two times per month, as needed, be community-driven, and employ and advise on best practices for surveillance oversight. The board would communicate with the council, submitting its findings and recommendations, and would help draft any necessary legislation.
Surveillance techniques are rapidly evolving and the board would help the council stay up to date and aware of possible problems that could arise from each method. Facial recognition software, drones, and even X-ray vans have been used elsewhere.
Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams has advocated for more surveillance.
“We cannot be everywhere at once, but technology can help us work smarter,” he said in a news release. Williams has asked for more license plate readers and CCTV cameras — closed circuit television.
Indeed, the VPD has had to work with less, as it is currently understaffed out in the field.
Rosenberg told the Times-Herald that the safety of Vallejo citizens is indeed a human right, but that “it isn’t the only one” and that the community should have a big voice in the center of any discussions.
Once the board is put together it will be only the second one in California, after Oakland. Rosenberg is going to be giving the council a report on the Oakland board so that they can get a glimpse into how they operate and the effect they have on policy.
Rosenberg said she was gratified that the council was so enthusiastic about the idea and she also appreciated being given ample time to make a presentation to them. What was disappointing, she said, was how long it looks like it is going to take to get the board going. City Attorney Veronica Nebb said that her office anticipated getting the ordinance ready by the end of the year; Rosenberg had hoped for two weeks.
There’s nothing slowing down the forming of the committee in the meantime, however. Vallejo residents from each district who might want to serve on the board are encouraged to reach out to their council members.