Sebastopol City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday night to consider an ordinance that seeks to ban the use of facial recognition and predictive policing technologies in local law enforcement.
The proposed ordinance, submitted by the Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and put forth by Council member Una Glass, also would require the Sebastopol Police Department hold a public hearing and receive approval from City Council to acquire or use any new surveillance technology, including cameras and drones.
If the proposal is eventually approved, Glass wrote in her introduction to the agenda item, Sebastopol would join the “growing number of local governments (that) have adopted laws that prohibit the use of biometric surveillance technology and predictive policing,” like San Francisco and Oakland.
Sebastopol police do not currently use any biometric surveillance technology, which relies on physical characteristics (such as faces, fingerprints or voices) to identify suspects, according to Chief Kevin Kilgore.
“So this is the perfect time to put up guardrails,” said Omar Figueroa, a Sebastopol attorney and member of the local ACLU chapter who helped draft the ordinance. “Once law enforcement agencies are introduced to surveillance technologies, they often become addicted to them.”
Research has found pervasive biases and inaccuracies in biometric surveillance.
A December 2019 report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology based on 189 different facial recognition softwares determined these programs were more likely to inaccurately identify Black, Asian and Native people — with most falsely identifying pictures of Black women at a higher rate than other demographics.
Meanwhile, predictive policing — technology that uses data analytics to anticipate crimes, who will commit them and where — has been widely criticized as perpetuating racist inequalities in law enforcement.
“Bias, accuracy issues, and stereotypes built into biometric surveillance systems and predictive policing technology pose a threat to Californians,” the draft ordinance reads.
City staff, including Chief Kilgore, will review the proposal and make recommendations to City Council before members revise and/or vote on the ordinance.
Kilgore said he agrees that biometric surveillance technologies and predictive policing warrant oversight, though not necessarily a complete ban.
“There needs to be checks and balances to ensure we’re using the technology in the right way …. and we’re not creating any type of environment that mischaracterizes people,” he said.
But the police chief is concerned that requiring city approval for the use of any surveillance technology may get in the way of regular policing.
The draft ordinance currently defines surveillance technology as anything used to collect or process information associated with an individual or group, including license plate scanners, security cameras and social media monitoring programs.
Lauren Mendehlson, another Sebastopol attorney who led the drafting of the local ordinance, said in response that the policy is not meant to impact the department’s regular work, and that Kilgore’s concerns can be addressed if they are found to be legitimate.
“I don’t think that’s a reason to hold off on exploring and hopefully adopting something like this,” she said.
Regarding predictive policing and facial recognition specifically, Kilgore said, “They are not technologies that we currently have, nor do we have any type of budget that would allow us to purchase these kinds of technologies.”
Mendelsohn said this is exactly why the policy is relevant now.
“Waiting until the police department is considering acquiring this type of technology to put this measure in place is too late. It’s a preventative measure to protect our rights before they are jeopardized,” she said.
Tuesday’s draft ordinance also includes provisions for continued oversight of any surveillance activities approved by the council and protections for whistleblowers.
Figueroa said the local ACLU chapter approached Sebastopol first because of its progressive history but ultimately hopes to implement the policy in every Sonoma County municipality.
You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @vv1lder.