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Vallejo council approves creation of surveillance committee despite calls to delay vote

  •   4 min reads
Vallejo council approves creation of surveillance committee despite calls to delay vote
Automated license plate readers in Vallejo.

VALLEJO - A divided Vallejo City Council pushed forward Tuesday night with the creation of a new committee aimed at reviewing the use of surveillance technology in the city, despite calls from local groups to halt the process after accusing city officials of weakening the committee’s powers.

In a 5-2 vote, the city council approved a second reading of the ordinance creating the seven-person committee tasked with advising the council on how the city should use its surveillance technology that collects, analyzes, or stores information about people in Vallejo.

Part of the motion establishing the new committee included several changes proposed by Mayor Robert McConnell in response to concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union and Oakland Privacy, which have been working to make the surveillance committee a reality.

The changes, which are expected to come back next month for the council’s approval, include adding a nepotism clause to prevent immediate family members of city employees from serving on the committee, staggering committee members’ terms, mandating that the application process be handled through the city clerk’s office, and adding a requirement that city officials notify the committee within 30 days after using a piece of technology not currently owned by Vallejo in an emergency situation.

“Rather than delay it, I think it is more important to move this process forward,” McConnell told the council after unveiling his proposed changes. “With these changes, I can support the moving forward of this ordinance. Otherwise, I might have to agree with the public that this should be subjected to more reflection.”

District 3 Councilwoman Mina Loera-Diaz said she fully supported the mayor’s proposed changes and was adamant that Oakland Privacy and ACLU have time to “be involved in this” and provide input.

“If we’re going to do this, we need to do it right,” Loera-Diaz told the council. While she appeared to be comfortable with the changes, Loera-Diaz  ultimately voted against the motion.

Councilmember Cristina Arriola, who represents District 6, also voted against the motion, advocating for a delay, stressing that “there were so many missteps” with regard to establishing the new committee.

“It's almost like we’re preparing ourselves for failure with this commission,” Arriola said.

Prior to council discussing the topic, a handful of people urged the council to delay the vote, citing concerns about changes made to the ordinance.

Tracy Rosenberg with Oakland Privacy — a citizens’ group that seeks to protect the public’s privacy regarding municipalities’ use of surveillance equipment — said a recent meeting of concerned residents revealed many were uneasy with changes the city made to the ordinance.  

“To be honest, the tenor of the meeting was that stakeholders, people in your city, your constituents, they felt tricked,” Rosenberg told the council. “That is not the right way to start something new.”

Andrea Sorce, a co-chair of the newly created Solano County chapter of the ACLU, said the lack of a timeline on when the city had to report that it used technology during an emergency gave Vallejo police a way to “work around” the committee. She also stressed that the original plan was to have members serve one-year terms and prevent family members of Vallejo police officers from serving on the committee.

“Ultimately, the best option is to delay this vote,” Sorce said. “There were a lot of changes made at the 11th-hour that the ACLU and Oakland Privacy legal teams were not aware of.”

Prior to the meeting, the ACLU asked residents to sign a petition that demanded the council delay the vote to approve creating  the new committee.

Kris Kelly, the other co-chair of the new ACLU Solano chapter, chastised the council for not doing more to bring change to the city.

“You either want to see change or you don’t,” she said. “You will not see change by allowing the police to continue to bulldoze their way through things and have things their way. This is supposed to be about the people.”

Kelly said Vallejo police put her family under illegal surveillance following the police killing of her brother, Mario Romero, in September 2012.  Then- Vallejo police officers Sean Kenney and Dustin Joseph shot Romero to death outside his home while he was seated in his car.

The impetus for creating the new committee can be tied to the city’s mishandling of a policy surrounding the use of a cell-site simulator, otherwise known as a Stingray. The device masquerades as a cell phone tower, confusing nearby cell phones. The phones connect to the device instead of a cell phone tower. Law enforcement can find each phone’s unique international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) number, which is then used to track the location of the phone. Some of the  devices can intercept voice and text transmissions.

Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams has previously said the device will not be used to gather text and phone conversations, only the IMSI number.

Last year, Oakland Privacy sued the city, arguing Vallejo violated state law when the council voted to acquire the cell site simulator without public input. Oakland Privacy won a preliminary ruling, which forced Vallejo to change its Stingray policy.

Other surveillance technology the committee is reviewing includes automated license plate readers, drones, closed circuit TV cameras, gunshot detection technology, body cameras, biometric software, and DNA capture technology, among others.

The proposed amendments are expected back before the council on Oct. 26.

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