Police Commission sets new rules for how LAPD uses surveillance technology
The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday adopted new rules for how police can use crimefighting technologies, despite opposition from advocacy groups who said they could lead to increased surveillance of people.
Under the new policy, the LAPD must submit a detailed proposal to the commission before deploying a particular type of technology, which spells out whether any data will be collected on people and for how long it will be kept, any infringements on people’s privacy and civil rights, and what safeguards are in place to guard against misuse.
Before voting to approve or reject them, the commission will discuss proposals in public, giving people the chance to take part in an “informed” debate about their use, Lizabeth Rhodes, director of the LAPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing and Policy, told commissioners at the panel’s meeting.
The policy, which the commission approved unanimously, applies to electronic tools currently in use but not to “court authorized technologies,” such as wiretaps or GPS-tracking devices, Rhodes said. Department officials will train officers on a technology’s capabilities and limits and will be required to report each year to the commission about its compliance to the policy, Rhodes told the panel.
The department was already following similar guidelines for two controversial pieces of technology and hardware — drones and facial recognition software, Rhodes said.
Proponents called the move a significant step by the department toward accountability and oversight, amid a continuing national debate over the use of technology by law enforcement. Police maintain that they need new tools to help track criminals in an increasingly interconnected world, while civil libertarians and privacy rights advocates contend that facial recognition software and other products can be intrusive and biased.
On Tuesday, the commission voted unanimously to adopt the new policy. But not before several critics denounced the move during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Hamid Khan, of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, said similar policies in the past have given the veneer of legitimacy to police practices but ultimately failed to reign in abuse. Such rules, he added, have in the past been used to give the department political cover for expanding its surveillance capabilities.
“It sets the tone and gives them a free license,” Khan, who also called in to the meeting, said in an earlier interview.
Khan pointed to since-dismantled predictive policing initiatives that disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities, as well as the department’s failure to disclose its longtime use of facial recognition software.
In January 2021, the commission imposed new rules for the department’s use of facial recognition software, following a Times report that found officers had used the technology 32,000 times over the years, despite denials by the department.
The current policy allows LAPD detectives and other trained officers to use only one software platform operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which compares a suspect’s image only to mugshots — a far less expansive search than what products built by for-profit companies such as Clearview AI offer.
An internal LAPD investigation found that a handful of detectives had used the controversial Clearview software, which claims a database of three billion photos of people scraped from the Internet.
The guidelines adopted Tuesday also mandate new measures for tracking the LAPD’s use of the county facial recognition system, but the commission rejected the outright ban on the technology sought by many activists.
Khan also criticized what he saw as the commission’s lack of outreach in historically disenfranchised communities that he said would bear the brunt of stepped-up police surveillance.
Mohammad Tajsar, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, said the civil rights organization initially supported the creation of civilian-led boards to oversee police technology but has since changed its stance. In a letter to the Commission, the ACLU joined groups like Stop LAPD Spying and the local Black Lives Matter chapter in opposing the creation of a technology oversight board modeled after a similar body in Oakland.
“The problem is that these technologies are so invasive, they’re so dangerous and put in the hands of this particular department, are so problematic, that there isn’t any kind of rules or criteria that will meaningfully limit the invasiveness and danger of these technologies,” Tajsar said in a previous interview.
During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioner Eileen Decker said she felt confident that the policy will ensure continued oversight of the department’s use of technology.
The only commissioner to express hesitation during Tuesday’s meeting was Dale Bonner, who pressed the department on whether exceptions made for certain court-ordered technologies were too broad. His concern, he said, was that “we will find out that the department is using something that troubles us and the response will be that, ‘Well three years ago, a court ordered us to do something and this is the technology we’re using.’ ”
LAPD Chief Michel Moore responded that the safeguards are among the strongest in the country. “I think that it’s warranted, that it’s needed, and that it’s valuable in building public trust,” he said.
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