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The Real Purpose of Oakland's Surveillance Center

City leaders have argued that Oakland needs a massive surveillance system to combat violent crime, but internal documents reveal that city staffers are also focused on tracking political protesters.



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But Rajiv Shah, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago who conducted a study on the efficacy of Chicago police's crime cameras, said surveillance systems aren't guaranteed to help police reduce crime. They do, however, serve political goals of looking tough on crime.

In Chicago, the camera network was set up during the mid-2000s with no public input or oversight. And local officials justified it by pointing to the dual threats of terrorism and crime. But the latter, Shah said, is a red herring. "It's not really about solving crime," he said. "That's just something that's tacked on at the end to make it easier for the public to swallow." From a political perspective, he said, the questionable efficacy of networking cameras comes in second to the political currency of claiming credit for a brick-and-mortar project geared toward fighting violent crime. "It's like every local politician: 'I'll do something to create more jobs. I'll do something to reduce crime. I'll set up a camera system.'"

In Oakland, city leaders have also pointed to the city's high crime rate as the primary reason for building a surveillance center. Supporters of the DAC have also argued that the possibility of infringing on people's privacy or civil rights pales in comparison to the need to address violence in the city. "There are so many people in West Oakland who feel terrorized by gunplay and prostitution, gangs or just straight violence," said Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, whose district encompasses downtown and West Oakland.

There are a large number of residents in Oakland — poor, rich, black, white, Latino, and Asian — who desperately want something to be done about the violent crime that has taken thousands of mostly young African-American and Latino men to the grave over the past thirty years, and McElhaney said these communities support surveillance cameras.

But it's unclear whether residents understand how the DAC is going to be used. Civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, an Oakland resident who has been an integral part of the team involved in federal oversight of OPD for the past decade, said he's concerned about the police department's track record of misconduct and its history of disproportionately targeting people of color. "Under the right circumstances, [the DAC] could solve some crime, and help deter bad behavior by police, since they're still not using their [chest mounted cameras] properly," Chanin said. "However, if done wrong, the surveillance center will be a titanic waste of money. It will invade people's privacy and become a bureaucratic nightmare from managing so much data.

"There are fundamental problems with how OPD collects and handles evidence," he continued. "They can't even deal with the resources they have now."

Professor Shah's observations about the use of networked surveillance systems for purposes other than crime-fighting is borne out by official documents and correspondence tracing the evolution of Oakland's Domain Awareness Center. Public records show that city staffers are interested in using the DAC to monitor political protests. This aspect of the DAC first became public in August when Renee Domingo, director of Oakland's Emergency Management Services Division and the head of the DAC project team, published an article in the government trade publication Public CEO justifying the need for the surveillance hub. "Oakland's long history of civil discourse and protest adds to the need [for the Domain Awareness Center]," Domingo wrote. "The Oakland Emergency Operations Center has been partially or fully activated more than 30 times in the past three years to respond to large demonstrations and protests."

Other records echo this political mission. In meeting minutes from a January 2012 meeting of the San Francisco Maritime Exchange's Northern California Maritime Area Security Committee, Domingo and Mike O'Brien, director of security for the Port of Oakland, described the DAC system as a tool that would help control labor strikes and community protests that threaten to slow business at the port. Following security reports from the US Border Patrol and the FBI, Domingo told the committee that Oakland law enforcement was "hoping that things would quiet down with the Occupy movement in the new year," according to the official minutes. Domingo thanked the Maritime Exchange for its support of Oakland's port security grant projects, which includes the DAC.

O'Brien went further, explaining that the port's Emergency Operations Center (which now feeds into the DAC) "made use of seventy new security cameras" to track the protesters, and added that the system will ensure that "future actions [do] not scare labor away."

Dan Siegel, a longtime civil and workers' rights attorney in Oakland, said the city staffers' focus on political unrest, even at the port, is disturbing. "There's a huge difference in protecting the port from potential acts of terrorism than from spying on port workers and others who may have political or economic conflicts with port management and the companies that operate the terminals," said Siegel. "What we see taking place is a complete blurring of that line where port security now includes tracking Occupy, longshore workers, and now recently the Port Truckers Association."

During construction of the first phase of the DAC, from roughly August 2012 to October 2013, city staffers repeatedly referred to political protests as a major reason for building the system. Emails to and from Lieutenant Christopher Shannon, Captain David Downing, and Lieutenant Nishant Joshi of OPD and Ahsan Baig, Oakland's technical project leader on the DAC, show that OPD staffers were in the surveillance center during the Trayvon Martin protests this year, and that they may have been monitoring marches in Oakland. In the same chain of emails, Shannon asked if the Emergency Operations Center and the DAC control room's layout had "changed much since May Day," referring to yet another large political rally in Oakland when the DAC appears to have been used by OPD to monitor demonstrations.

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