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Oakland Politicians Need to Stop Trying to Infringe on Civil Liberties

The city's leaders have developed a troublesome habit of proposing dubious crime-reduction plans that seek to trample on people's rights.

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The Oakland City Council and Mayor Jean Quan deserve credit for finally deciding last week to limit the city's surveillance center to just the Port of Oakland. But the vote was months overdue and the delay by the council and the mayor in making their decision represented yet another giant waste of time by city leadership. The Domain Awareness Center (DAC), which would have given police the power to use surveillance cameras and other monitoring equipment to keep tabs on citizens, even when they had done nothing wrong, was a ridiculously bad idea from the start — primarily because there was never any evidence it could have helped reduce crime in the city. And yet the council and mayor pushed forward with the proposal anyway, creating an uproar among city residents who don't want their government to infringe on their civil liberties in the name of a proposal that would likely have no real benefits.

It's become a tiresome trend in Oakland in the past several years: city leaders blindly advancing a proposal that seeks to restrict people's rights in order to lower crime when there's no proof that the plan actually will reduce crime. First it happened with gang injunctions, which sought to restrict the constitutional rights of certain young men because of their past affiliations. Then it was for a proposed youth curfew, which would have allowed police to arrest teenagers who had done nothing more than stay out late. City leaders sold both ideas as crime-fighting measures, except that there was — and is — no solid evidence that either plan would have actually lowered crime in Oakland.

Not surprisingly, hundreds of residents felt compelled to pack city council meetings to decry the proposals and wonder aloud what their elected leaders could possibly be thinking. Meeting after meeting lasted well into the early-morning hours, with residents rightly noting that the gang injunctions and youth curfew likely would have allowed police to target young of men of color — and, as such, were extraordinarily dangerous ideas in a city in which the police department has had a long and troubled history of violating people's civil rights based on the color of their skin.

At its heart, the DAC was no really no different. It would have also allowed police to target young men of color for no good reason. But it went one step further than that. It would have enabled law enforcement to also spy on political protesters. In fact, as the Express first reported last August, Renee Domingo, director of Oakland's Emergency Management Services Division and the head of the DAC project team, revealed the true purpose of the surveillance center when she wrote in a government trade publication that "Oakland's long history of civil discourse and protest adds to the need [for the Domain Awareness Center]."

That revelation alone should have been enough for the council and mayor to kill the DAC proposal. Oakland, after all, has a proud and storied history of political protest and advocacy — from the labor movement of the 1930s and '40s to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And to think that in 2010s, the same city was moving forward with an $11 million plan designed primarily to spy on people engaging in First Amendment activity? It was an outrage.

It also was a sham. Internal city emails revealed that city staffers were never focused on reducing crime when pursuing the surveillance center. As we first reported in December, city staffers never once, in more than 3,000 pages of emails related to the DAC, mentioned the terms "murder," "homicide," "assault," "robbery," or "theft" when discussing the surveillance center. Eventually, some councilmembers even acknowledged that the DAC would not help the city reduce crime.

And yet, it wasn't until early March, after several long and contentious public meetings in which almost no one came out in favor of the DAC, that the council and mayor finally came to their senses and voted to restrict the center to just monitoring the port — as it was originally intended. Yes, Oakland's leaders finally made the right decision, but why did it take so long? And why do they seem so tone deaf at times?

It's understandable that the council and mayor are frustrated by Oakland's seemingly intractable crime problems, and are desperate to find solutions. But it's past time for them to stop proposing dubious ideas that would infringe on people's constitutional rights. It's unnecessary; it's divisive; and Oaklanders don't want it. Indeed, it wastes everyone's time.

Three-Dot Roundup

The state Democratic Party unanimously voted to ban fracking and legalize marijuana in its official party platform last weekend. The votes represented a strong rebuke to Governor Jerry Brown, who opposes cannabis legalization and signed a bill into law last year that promises to greatly expand fracking in California. Anti-fracking activists also protested Brown's speech at the party convention. ... The state Senate is moving forward with cellphone kill switch legislation proposed by state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). Kill switches render smartphones inoperable when stolen, and making them mandatory should reduce robberies nationwide. Oakland police say 75 percent of robberies in the city involve a cellphone. ... And the Oakland Tribune reported that former City Administrator Deanna Santana, who was fired by Mayor Quan last week after she unsuccessfully sought jobs in other cities, will receive a severance package worth $223,090.

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