Community control over policing has been a growing demand after the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Protests to “defund police” involve examining all mechanisms of coercive police power, including surveillance. But one of the great ironies of the current protests in the District — protests filled with heartbreaking rage, patriotic dissent and calls for anti-racist policing — is that they are all being monitored by unaccountable federal and local surveillance technologies. In fact, as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) stood in Black Lives Matter Plaza, defiantly defending protesters from President Trump’s threatened federal response, she was being monitored by surveillance technologies that even she can’t control.
There is no local authorizing legislation for police surveillance technologies used by the District’s Metropolitan Police Department and no transparency about federal surveillance systems turned against D.C. residents. The D.C. Council can easily fix the first problem and should seek congressional assistance to address the second.
A coalition of D.C. civil rights organizations — Community Oversight of Surveillance DC — has been advocating legislation that would require public hearings, audits, formal policies and community engagement before approving any policing technologies. The law would require the community, through the D.C. Council, to approve the use of technologies such as video analytics, facial recognition, predictive policing or sensor-based surveillance, and establish accountability mechanisms to address racial bias, privacy harms and the erosion of constitutional rights.
Even before the national awakening over structural bias in policing, this request for democratic accountability over democratic policing might have been pretty reasonable. But now, as policing as an institution is being questioned, such an attempt at minimal accountability is the least that could be done. That D.C. residents did not have a say in the police department’s purchase of facial recognition matching technology or automated license plate readers also means there are no formal policies, audits or forums for community involvement. We do not know if any privacy or civil liberties studies were performed before the purchase. We do not know if any racial bias auditing was conducted. Especially now, with heightened First Amendment concerns in the headlines, we do not know what special protections exist for constitutionally protected activities such as protesting.
Local democratic oversight would respond to the well-founded fears of the African American community that the technologies would be employed in a racially biased manner. It also would empower the D.C. Council to know more about the technologies being purchased through the police budget. A formal authorization mechanism is the best way to unearth the financial costs of those technologies — money that might be better used for other non-policing purposes. Public oversight would improve the debate about whether any of the technologies are necessary in the first place.
The final reason for the D.C. Council to regulate local surveillance is to give it the moral authority to push back on federal surveillance being imposed on the city. The fact that the Drug Enforcement Administration was given special permission to track local protesters last month undermines local autonomy. The fact that the Secret Service experimented with live facial recognition technology on D.C. streets undermines local autonomy. In the same way that Bowser responded to erosions of local control by standing up to unwanted federal police presence, so should the District push back on federal surveillance technology. Any change would need to be pursued in Congress, but the D.C. Council can take the first steps to ensure transparency at home.
Regulating police surveillance is not the same thing as banning police surveillance. Advocates for abolishing police as a manifestation of structural racism will not be satisfied with a move to regulate technological systems of social control. But democratic accountability is the beginning, not the end, of the surveillance debate. Only through knowing what policing technologies are being used can policed communities advocate transformative change. Only by auditing and studying the privacy and financial costs will D.C. residents be able to evaluate our funding priorities around policing.