By Vic Bedoian
On July 7, the Fresno Police Department unveiled a high-technology information center that incorporates video surveillance and intelligence-gathering software to help officers better evaluate a crime or public safety situation before arriving on the scene. Law enforcement officials say it will help police officers make more informed decisions when dealing with potentially violent circumstances or public emergencies. Civil libertarians, however, are raising concerns about the potential for misuse and overreach that such technology permits.
In a windowless room on the second floor of Fresno’s police headquarters, two officers sit at computer consoles facing a wall of 55 large-screen video monitors called the Real Time Crime Center. The center marries images from video surveillance cameras that are becoming more common in public spaces, with the data-gathering capacity of social media.
Introducing the system to reporters, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer explained that the safety of officers and increasing public concern over police actions has prompted law enforcement to use state-of-the-art technology in responding to situations, “This Real Time Crime Center is designed to provide relevant information to officers in order to allow them to make better decisions, more informed decisions prior to them arriving on scene. It allows them to know some of the unknowns and to be able to see some of the unseen.”
Police departments have already built Real Time Crime Centers in large metro areas like Los Angeles and medium-sized cities such as Albuquerque. In Fresno, the center cost about one million dollars and was paid for with private money and in-kind donations.
The core of the system utilizes a database called BEWARE, developed by a company called Intrado, that provides a 9-1-1 and emergency communications infrastructure for public safety agencies throughout the nation. In Fresno, the center gathers images from 180 police cameras, 140 traffic cameras, video from police body cameras, 750 cameras in schools and eventually will incorporate images from thousands of video surveillance cameras in banks, hospitals and commercial establishments.
Chief Dyer explains that police receive about 600 emergency calls a day. The BEWARE system aids police dispatchers in assessing the threat level of an incident before officers get there, “Ideally, what happens is when a call comes in, the officers are notified through the crime center. BEWARE is then automatically accessed, the officers can then access the cameras in that location or vicinity, and they’ll be able to see what is occurring and then be able to access the information that is provided through intelligence.”
The BEWARE system gives officers information about a person’s criminal history, associates and family members. It then assigns a threat level of green, yellow or red. Fresno police are also using technology that detects the location of gunshots and a system called Vigilant, a mobile license plate reader that records a quarter of a million vehicles a month.
Bob Navarro is a Fresno attorney specializing in civil liberties issues. He says the police understandably need to know about a particular person identified in an emergency situation to protect themselves and the public. What concerns him is the indiscriminate nature of personal information being gathered, “The problem with those technologies is that they sweep a lot of information. One would expect law enforcement to have available to them a person’s criminal history, but what these technologies do—particularly the BEWARE program—is that they utilize a lot of public information out there such as social media, Facebook, Twitter, anything that somebody posts out there in just the normal course of communication with other people.”
Dyer says he understands the public’s apprehension about privacy concerns but emphasizes that the information they collect is already in the public domain, “I believe there’s always going to be the concern about big brother when you’re dealing with technology; the ability to access information about certain individuals, the public video, the public audio. The one thing we are very cautious about is making sure that whatever information that we glean is from a public domain, information that you as a reporter would be able to access.” Chief Dyer told reporters that the ACLU was consulted in putting together the operations manual for the new system.
Navarro, who is a member of the local chapter of the ACLU, counters that the BEWARE system relies on keywords in assessing threat levels, a method he insists leaves too much room for mistakes, “I think its capacity for error and misrule is as great as its capacity to assist the police in its endeavors.”
The ACLU hasn’t staked out an official position on the Real Time Crime Center, but Daisy Vierya, communications director for the ACLU of Northern California, states that before rolling out such technology “localities should have an open and transparent public process. The public expects to know why new technologies are being considered, how they are going to be used and what safeguards are in place to guard against misuse before any decisions are made.”
The unveiling of more powerful surveillance tools by law enforcement necessarily brings up the larger question of the public’s embrace of new technology and social media in general. Civil libertarian Navarro says people need to reflect on the balance between the benefits and costs, “There is a dialogue that has to happen between the people themselves irrespective of the police. If you value privacy you have to protect it. We are giving up a lot of what not so long ago was just considered ‘none of your business’ not even in the context of civil rights and law enforcement. I think people, particularly young people who haven’t experienced the abuses of the past with regard to civil liberties, might want to have a serious dialogue about what they are exposing themselves to.”
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at vicbedoian@ gmail.com.