Law enforcement agencies should not expand their electronic surveillance capabilities until they have addressed core problems of corruption, incompetence, poor oversight, and inadequate training.
Echoing concerns long raised by EFF, that’s the message the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sent the Calexico Police Department (CPD) following a years-long investigation into alleged corruption by officers.
The shocking state of affairs in the California town of Calexico, which sits on the Mexican border, was laid bare in a scathing report released by the DOJ last month. Prompted by a 2014 incident in which a Calexico resident was allegedly kidnapped and beaten by police officers, the DOJ's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) found department-wide corruption and incompetence. One of the most notable examples of the unethical department culture includes spending roughly $100,000 in seized assets on surveillance equipment (such as James Bond-style spy glasses) to dig up evidence of dirty deeds by city council members and complaint-filing citizens with the aim of blackmail and extortion. The DOJ also listed numerous operational oversights, including broken police radios in approximately half of the patrol cars, confusion regarding policies on use of force, and a total lack of record-keeping for equipment issued to employees.
Despite the well-known allegations, the Calexico city council approved the purchase of city-wide street cameras and automatic license plate reader technology in June 2015. The city council did not make the implementation of these surveillance programs contingent upon the CPD adopting 169 recommendations to remedy department failures made in the DOJ report.
Mass surveillance devices, such as license-plate recognition systems that record the movement of vehicles and city-wide street cameras that record the activity of everyone and everything, have been approved for use in Calexico despite a pervasive lack of basic law enforcement training, supervision, oversight, and competence. The CPD will get to snoop on the city's inhabitants after decades of violating the public's trust.
This is a department that needs to be reined in. We should all be wondering (loudly) why city leaders are instead entrusting this entity with high-tech spying gear for mass data gathering.
During a community listening session initiated by the DOJ last July, Calexico residents expressed their lack of trust in both the CPD and the city council, stating that corruption and political games have compromised actual policing and investigative work. Taking that into account in their report, the DOJ team recommended that the CPD make major institutional overhauls before focusing on new surveillance techniques:
...[G]iven the personnel shortages, funding gaps, and significant organizational and technical deficiencies the organization is currently facing, the CPD needs to prioritize addressing these fundamental deficiencies while balancing the initial implementation of these [cameras].
Calexico is a microcosm of an epidemic we are seeing throughout American communities—the belief that mass surveillance and data gathering are panaceas that can take the place of honest police work. The DOJ report is a message to police departments everywhere that having more cameras pointed at citizens does not mitigate the need for proper training, competent leadership, and community engagement.
The residents of Calexico should not be spied on by the same police department that routinely fails to abide by federal policing standards at every level.