SAN LEANDRO//PRIVACY | San Leandro City Council approved to move ahead with expanding its video surveillance system, however, with hesitation over the one-year retention period of information collected by the cameras. The council approved, 5-2, directing staff to formulate a plan for additional cameras at two undetermined location. Mayor Stephen Cassidy and Councilmember Ursula Reed both dissented.

The city currently maintains multiple cameras at City Hall, the Police Department, and red-light cameras at various intersections, but Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli wants to add cameras to two new locations with automated license plate readers (ALPR) as well as add additional ALPR’s to police vehicles. According to Spagnoli only one police car currently uses the device.

Spagnoli urged the council to act fast in approving installation of these new camera systems in order to avoid, what she claims, will be “displacement” of crime from Oakland to San Leandro. Oakland plans to implement their new surveillance program, the Domain Awareness Program (DAC) and over 150 cameras on city streets. “We have been stuck with the same staff for the past 30 years. This technology can help prosecution of criminals and it can enhance crime prevention,” Spagnoli told the council. “We have proved with our existing programs that cameras work in the city.”

However, despite Spagnoli’s push for these cameras, evidence of their effectiveness largely relied upon information from a police special interests group and the utilization of other similar systems in other cities. Spagnoli noted that Pittsburgh saw a dramatic reduction in crime after installing more security cameras with LPR’s in their city. She also referred to anecdotal evidence of criminals, violent and non-violent, that were caught after committing a crime because of security cameras. But, it was later noted by Councilmember Jim Prola that San Francisco did witness a reduction in property crime but that security cameras there did not have much effect on reducing violent crime. Spagnoli responded: “We rely on the experts in our field.”

But many citizens have voiced privacy concerns about the use of surveillance systems to monitor citizen activity and the retention time for footage caught by those cameras. Controversy surrounding the use of these camera systems was first reported by Wall Street Journal when San Leandro resident and school trustee, Mike Katz-Lacabe received photos from cameras tracking him and his children regularly despite never committing a crime. Katz said during public comment that although new policy now says to only retain information for a year this was not the case last fall when such information could be retained indefinitely. “There is no point in keeping this information for so long if most of it is useless,” said Katz-Lacabe after he referred to a Maryland study that found less than two percent of the camera’s recordings to be useful.

However, some citizens, one from Oakland, voiced support for the cameras in reducing crime. “My husband was held at gunpoint in the driveway,” said the speaker who added after the incident they installed cameras to help prevent further crime.

Concerns over the length of retaining video and ALPR data was also voiced by Prola, who grinded Spagnoli over the reason for retaining the information for a year when much of it isn’t of any use and other cities in the country retained their information for shorter periods. Spagnoli didn’t give a clear defense only explaining that policies differ from state to state and the San Leandro PD was following California state attorney general’s requirements. “It may take three months until we can get to a burglary,” said Spagnoli, “retaining for a year will help day to day police activities.”

But Prola, along with much of the council, still voiced interest in reducing the retention period for footage caught, further citing shorter time periods of retention by other police departments who didn’t see a year as necessary. Despite this protest though, the council still largely approved the agenda item to draft up a plan to expand the surveillance system but urged shorter retention period. “When walking the streets and knocking on doors public safety is the number one thing people talk about,” said Prola, “I am not against the use of cameras.” Councilmember Benny Lee later echoed Prola’s statements after the meeting. “It is the same thing I hear, it is true,” he said.

But Cassidy urged council to not vote quite yet until tighter restrictions were imposed on the use and retention of the surveillance program. He further urged other restrictions, “I would like to see restrictions on use of sharing video and use of facial recognition software,” said Cassidy. “I am also in favor of a 30-day storage of the video footage.”

Shane Bond is an East Bay Citizen contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Shane_Bond_