In recent years, protesters have come face to face with police forces that are increasingly well-equipped with battlefield surveillance technologies. That’s because U.S. police are getting more and more equipment from the U.S. military—including sophisticated surveillance equipment. The trend has led to disturbing scenes like those from 2014 protests against police shootings, in which peaceful protesters were confronted by law enforcement equipped with sophisticated military equipment.
In California, a bill is moving forward that would rein in those acquisitions of military equipment, and restore frayed relationships between police and the communities they serve. A.B. 3131 would allow police to acquire military equipment only after the acquisition is approved by a relevant elected legislative body, with opportunity for public comment required.
Typically, the governing body for a law enforcement agency will be a city council or county board of supervisors. These officials would also need to evaluate the threat to civil liberties posed by the technology, and create a use policy that is legally enforceable.
According to recent data from the Department of Defense, California police agencies are already in possession of more than $136 million worth of military equipment, including thermal imaging equipment, drones, and “long-range acoustic devices,” which are a type of sonic weapon. The Obama administration placed restrictions on handouts of military equipment in 2015, but those limits were removed by the Trump administration last year.
Community oversight is critical to responsible use of any surveillance technology, and that’s especially true of tools powerful enough to be used in a military setting. That’s why EFF is supporting A.B. 3131.
“All too often, government officials unilaterally decide to adopt powerful new military and surveillance technologies that invade our privacy, chill our free speech, and unfairly burden communities of color,” explained Nathan Sheard, EFF Grassroots Organizer, in our letter [PDF] supporting the bill.
We’d like California legislators to go even further, and insist on oversight for all police purchases of spying equipment. Another California bill we supported last year would have required this. So does a bill we support this year: S.B. 1186.
Spying tools used against foreign military adversaries shouldn’t be casually handed over to U.S. police. Once these tools are adopted locally, it’s hard to stop their use. It’s time to pass A.B. 3131 and other proposals that will put a stop to unchecked police surveillance.