Eureka City Council reviewed a proposal for a city-owned security camera policy during its regular meeting on Tuesday. The policy proposal seeks to identify the uses of city-owned security cameras and to ensure that the uses are consistent with the public interest.
City employees decided to develop a comprehensive policy for city-owned security cameras after the partially installed watchtower, known as “Lot Cop,” sparked outrage among community members last month.
Under the policy proposal, security cameras will be used to identify, arrest and prosecute perpetrators and gather evidence for administrative, civil and criminal investigations. Photos and videos captured by the devices should be used “for city business purposes only, never for personal or non-city related use.” Security cameras may not be used “in areas where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy” or “to intimidate, harass, or discriminate against any individual or group.”
One of the most controversial aspects of the Lot Cop is its sound-gathering ability. The policy proposal specifies that any city-owned surveillance camera “will never be used to collect audio data from members of the public.” The policy also states that the devices will not have facial recognition or license plate readability.
I asked Councilman Natalie Arroyo who had access to the security camera footage. Autumn Luna’s attorney general said access to the live video footage would be granted by the city manager’s office, but said the feed would not be constantly monitored by staff.
Eureka’s interim chief of police, Todd Jarvis, noted that surveillance footage is typically used to aid in the investigation after the accident has already occurred.
“We can go back, look at the footage, track down the suspects, and hopefully determine whether or not the crimes took place,” he said. “A lot of times, these types of cameras are just as valuable in clearing someone of a crime as they are in finding and prosecuting someone. … There are a lot of things we can use them for but our goal in the first place is to be able to Identify suspects who have committed crimes.
Speaking during a public comment, Michael Hansen, a resident of Eureka, said he was “shocked and outraged” by the city’s decision to install a watchtower in front of the Old Town’s balcony and questioned whether these watch measures actually deter criminal behaviour.
“Buying these cameras was a bad decision from the start,” he said. “Instead of acting as a deterrent to crime, the constant surveillance of the general public often reduces the public’s trust in the city and law enforcement, and the last thing the public needs now is any reason to further erode their trust in our institutions. … A wiser investment could have been directed toward actual investment. in solutions and solving our homeless problem.”
Eureka resident Carolyn Griffith echoed Hansen’s concerns and called on the council to take its time in developing thoughtful and effective policy.
“There is a lack of evidence that monitoring public places reduces crime,” she said. “…the only thing that has been documented is the institutional breach of the surveillance footage….what I fear locally is that it will be used to discriminately target the homeless.”
After the public comment, council member Kim Bergill asked how long the video would be kept. Luna said that data not downloaded for City’s business, such as the investigation, will be deleted after 90 days.
“So the only time we will review this material will be if there is a complaint within 90 days, is that correct?” Bergl asked. “…does it require a report from someone else to look into?”
City Manager Myles Slattery said the footage will be reviewed “only when necessary and when there is reason to do so”.
He continued, “This could be a traffic accident, it could be an accident of vandalism that happened in a certain period of time and we can go back and see what happened.” “…We certainly don’t have staff to sit and watch the cameras in any shape, shape or form.”
Slattery reminded the board that the city purchased the cops’ lot due to staffing problems at the Eureka Police Department (EPD).
“A lot of policemen were brought in by our former [chief of police] To provide alternative ways to assist with recruitment and provide a deterrent so that we can address some of these issues,” he said. “…They have been very effective at Adorni [Center]. We’ve also used one in [the foot of] Truesdale Street and in two private locations.”
Bergl asked Slattery if he could explain why City employees decided to install the Lot Cop on the Old Town Terrace without first bringing the matter to the public or council for discussion.
“We chose this site because of the service calls and problems we had at that site,” he explained. “The decision was made at the personnel level, as was previously the case for Lot Cops police that we have used in other locations. As for the notification, I will take the blame for that. We were looking at this as more of a solution to some of the staffing levels we have at EPD.”
Council member Scott Power asked how staff will locate future cameras and whether they will be traded by the council or whether there are standards set. “We don’t want to get into that tonight, but it’s something to think about in the future.”
Councilman Leslie Castellano suggested that staff add language to the policy to specify that camera placement would be determined by the volume of calls for the service in a particular area.
Luna reminded the board that “additional policies will be developed in the future” and cautioned against “micro-management” of staff.
“There has to be some confidence in the way our employees handle these matters with that in mind,” she said. “…I hope there is no abuse but if there is abuse, we already have personnel policies to address abuse. Additional policy, I’m not saying no to it, but we have ways of actually addressing that.”
After about an hour of discussion and several staff suggestions about adjusting the policy language, the board agreed to return to the topic at its next meeting. The Council did not vote on the item.
The meeting recording can be found here.