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Cleveland Commission Advises Oversight on Emerging Police Tech

The city’s Community Police Commission recommended this week that the city have a policy and community discussion prior to using any kind of surveillance equipment to prevent invading residents’ civil rights.

(TNS) — An oversight panel is pushing to make sure Cleveland police protect residents’ rights as the department uses drones and other technologies in crimefighting.

The Cleveland Community Police Commission this week recommended in a 48-page report that before the city uses any kind of surveillance equipment there should be a policy and community discussion on it.

The commission wants to prevent any surveillance equipment, such as drones and cameras that provide facial recognition, from invading residents’ civil rights. It is also recommending that the city disclose its use of the devices and allow residents to give feedback. It also is seeking greater restrictions on search warrants that are obtained through the devices.

Gordon Friedman, the chairman of the panel’s search and seizure committee and a civil rights attorney, said there needs to be guardrails when new technologies are introduced within the community.

“We are recommending that the city should take advantage of modern technology in its police work,” Friedman said. “We are not against that. What we do want to propose is that there should be policy before technology.”

“What we have now is technology with no policy whatsoever, and we believe that there should be within the new police commission.”

Safety Director Karrie Howard this week released a statement that said the city will not use any equipment that would go beyond state guidelines for surveillance technology.

The police commission was created in 2015 as part of a federal consent decree to reform a department whose officers had been accused of using excessive force on residents. Its role has evolved with the passage of Issue 24 in November, an initiative that sought greater oversight of the department.

The commission, at its inception, hosted community meetings and gathered feedback from residents on different police policies and procedures and made recommendations to city officials. The mayor and police chief could adopt part, all or none of the panel’s recommendations.

Issue 24 means the commission will soon have the ability to enact policies, override the police chief or safety director on disciplinary matters, make decisions on what training officers receive and offer final authority over hiring practices, all of which required changes to the consent decree.

Mayor Justin Bibb hopes to have members of the new group approved by July. On Wednesday, the city announced it received 281 applications for the commission, which will consist of 13 members. Bibb will recommend the appointments, and Council will approve them, a move that will replace those currently on the panel.

In recent months, the current commission formed a committee of experts on police surveillance and privacy laws to examine the best practices for implementing technology into a “successful, crime prevention strategy without sacrificing trust or impacting civil liberties,” the report said.

The police department uses surveillance technology such as automated readers of license plates and cameras that have finite searchable capabilities. The department also uses listening devices such as drones and ShotSpotter, which details the location of gunshots.

Residents said they are unsettled about the use of such technologies, which can target minorities unfairly.

The report stressed that the tools could be helpful to solve crimes or provide help to those in need. But they can also be used to illegally track residents and violate their constitutional rights to privacy, the report said. Additionally, past research has proven that these technologies are not flawless.

For instance, the city has used ShotSpotter since 2020, and it is still in its early stages here. The equipment has been the focus of sharp criticism from academic scholars.

A recent report by and The Plain Dealer showed that it not only targeted specific groups, but the technology has provided inaccurate information to police.

“ShotSpotter is not a particularly accurate device to be used,” Friedman said. “It has errors and has made errors in terms of surveillance, and it really causes more work for law enforcement than they need.”

The police commission recommended Cleveland adopt a new surveillance technology plan, much like one approved by Oakland, California, which has had a high level of mistrust among police and residents. It seeks to allow officers to use the electronic surveillance within limits, and the commission suggests a privacy committee to guide policies.

Last year, Cleveland City Council’s Safety Committee discussed the using of drones, expanding the city’s surveillance camera system and continuing to use ShotSpotter.

In February, the safety committee sought $500,000 for two drones, 100 license-plate readers and five portable cameras.

Civil rights advocates balked, fearing the equipment would be too intrusive and could violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights to an unlawful search.

But research by city officials suggests the drones could reduce the need for high-speed pursuits. They also have helped authorities arrest violent suspects and find missing children.

Cleveland has about 1,200 city-operated surveillance cameras, and City Council has appropriated $4.5 million to purchase more.

Cleveland has used license-plate readers since 2017. This year, the city purchased 100 that will scan the license plates of cars that drive by the readers.

Privacy advocates fear using surveillance cameras for facial recognition, as they can be intrusive, Friedman said. Howard, the safety director, said the city’s cameras lack the technology to use facial recognition.

Nevertheless, the commission wants guidelines written to protect residents’ rights.

“Our report, I think, is a critical document that should be considered by the city now,” Friedman said.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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