The Palo Alto Police Department is seeking to install 10 body cameras from manufacturing company WatchGuard Video and implement policies that will improve surveilance while police officers are on duty.
If these cameras pass a trial period spanning several months, the city will equip its officers with 80 new cameras.
In December 2014, the department passed a policy on the regulation of body-worn cameras that gave the officers nearly complete leeway to act as they wished regarding turning them on or off. The policy explicitly stated that “no officer will be counseled or disciplined for failing to use or activate a body-worn camera during the trial or testing period.”
The changes sought for the aforementioned policy are expected to restrict the officers’ abilities to turn the cameras on or off in the hopes of maintaining transparency within local government.
Additionally, a group from the Palo Alto City Council, led by councilman Cory Wolbach, sent a memo to the city calling for a “standard operating procedure” in all surveillance technologies. The memo, co-signed by Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and two additional council members, highlights worries among the community about civilian privacy.
“We just want to make sure the council and community feel comfortable and have an insight into what types of technologies we’re using as a city,” Wolbach said in the memo.
On May 2, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously voted in favor of the creation of a policy to resolve issues regarding community members’ personal privacy. The Palo Alto Policy and Services Committee is currently designing a plan intended to alleviate concerns associated with advanced surveillance technology.
Although devices such as drones and cell phone trackers are not currently being used in Palo Alto, city officials are working on a plan to create rules by which surveillance technology can be utilized without compromising public safety and privacy.
“[Surveillance technologies] can make our government more accountable, they can make it more efficient,” Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Adam Schwartz said to the San Jose Mercury News. “But sometimes these technologies can diminish our privacy and our civil liberties and even kill our free speech.”
According to Wolbach, the Policy and Services Committee’s protocol will regulate any technology including body-worn cameras, license plate readers and drones that could potentially gather personal information. It will also determine the specific personal information that will be accessed, how said information will be stored and who can access it.
“The community really deserves to know that we value their privacy, and especially here in the Silicon Valley, that we recognize the complex questions raised by recent and rapidly evolving technology,” Wolbach said.
According to Schwartz, creating a set of policies on surveillance of the public will ensure much more trust between the Palo Alto community and the Palo Alto Police Department.
“A breakdown in community trust can occur [when the public doesn’t think their privacy is being protected],” a special task force regulating policing established by President Barack Obama said in a report in 2015. “Agencies need to consider ways to involve the public in discussions related to the protection of their privacy and civil liberties prior to implementing new technology, as well as work with the public and other partners in the justice system to develop appropriate policies and procedures for use.”