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Village Council —  Surveillance tech discussed

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As police departments across the country increasingly adopt new surveillance technologies — from drones to automatic license plate readers — communities such as Yellow Springs need to figure out ways to protect the civil liberties and privacy rights of residents from their use.

That was the message of those presenting draft legislation on Village use of surveillance technology at Council’s Aug. 20 meeting. The topic was discussion only.

The measure, proposed by a subcommittee of the Justice System Task Force, or JSTF, would give the public more control over how surveillance technology is used by local police and other municipal departments, according to Steve McQueen and Ellis Jacobs of the task force.

Specifically, the legislation would require Village staff to present to Council how they plan to use any new surveillance technology, Jacobs, a local civil rights attorney, said at the meeting.

“This ordinance doesn’t judge any of that [surveillance] technology. It doesn’t say this is good and that is bad. It simply says if you want to use it, you have to tell Council about it, have a public hearing, and give people the ability to decide,” Jacobs explained.

Council members were supportive of the plan, and will consider an ordinance at an upcoming meeting.

Jacobs told Council that the task force subcommittee doesn’t believe the Village is currently employing technologies in ways that hamper civil liberties, but that the community should be aware of and look out for such technologies, which “are being pushed on police departments.”

“The technologies lend themselves to abuse because they are just so powerful,” Jacobs added.

Council member Lisa Kreeger said she agrees with the idea of getting ahead of surveillance technologies.

“The technologies are going to evolve in ways that we can’t even imagine, faster than we imagine and will be cheaper than we think,” she said.

Council member Judith Hempfling, liaison to the JSTF, said at the meeting that  “constitutional issues” are raised by many of the technologies, and cited the “impacts [they] can have, particularly on communities of color, low-income communities and politically active communities.”

Several new surveillance technologies were identified at the meeting and in an American Civil Liberties Union handout. They include stingrays, devices that mimic cell phone communications towers and can intercept data and location information from a person’s cell phone; drones equipped with cameras and microphones; automatic license plate readers, which take photographs of car license plates from a fixed location and can store them for long periods of time; body cameras equipped with facial recognition; social media monitoring software,  and more.

The proposed policy does allow the police use of such technologies during emergencies, such as employing an automatic license plate reader to track the vehicle of someone suspected of kidnapping, according to McQueen at the meeting.

But if, for example, the Village wanted to gather and store mass data on all vehicles with such a device, that use would have to be approved by Council first.

In response to a question, Village Manager Patti Bates confirmed that the YSPD does own an automatic license plate reader, but that it does not use it. 

“It doesn’t work,” Bates said of the technology. Recently, the YSPD opted not to upgrade the software for the device, according to Jacobs.

The proposed policy would apply to both new technology and existing surveillance technology used by the YSPD or other Village departments, Jacobs confirmed at the meeting.

Council directed Jacobs and Village Solicitor Chris Conard to work together to prepare a final draft of the ordinance for an upcoming meeting.  

Initially set up by Council in September 2016 and given a two-year charge, the Justice System Task Force has made several recommendations to Council on the policies and practices of the police department and Mayor’s Court. The citizen group is set to disband at the end of the year, although an official commission addressing the same issues may take its place, according to Hempfling in a later interview.

Other items on Council’s Aug. 20 agenda will be covered in next week’s News.

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