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Saturday, January 28, 2023

A City’s Journey to Smart Solutions: A Bottoms-Up Approach to Balancing Privacy, Security and Public Safety

Unique circumstances in Oakland drove a citizen-led approach to implement smart city surveillance technology.

This article is the fifth in a series that follows the City of Oakland’s journey to balance privacy and security in the aftermath of a public safety crisis – from the formation of the first citizen-led privacy commission in the nation that was created in response to planned expansion of surveillance throughout the city, to a bottoms-up, citizen-led initiative from one district to deploy smart surveillance technology throughout all districts of the city. Read the first installment here, the second installment here, the third installment here, and the fourth installment here.

As the article preceding this Oakland series quoted The Dark Knight, this article will wrap up the series with another: “The night is darkest before the dawn…I promise you, the dawn is coming.” These words vowed by the character Harvey Dent/Two-Face were meant to assure citizens of the crime-ridden city of Gotham. But when will the dawn come for Oakland, a city in the midst of a long-lasting public-safety crisis?

The drones that took flight in Oakland in March 2022 came from a community left reeling in the aftermath of a dual pandemic of COVID-19 and anti-Asian hate, amid a tsunami of violent crimes that tore through all districts of the city. While crimes rose throughout the nation during the pandemic, Oakland scores No. 1 as the most dangerous on a crime index with a scale of 1 to 100. Oakland residents have a 1 in 77 chance of being a victim of violent crime – a rate that is almost three times higher compared to the state of California with a rate of 1 in 227.[1]

It was citizens from Oakland Chinatown who made the surveillance technology possible. A private donation of $80K enabled the launch of the drone program with the Oakland Police Department (OPD), after the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) was finally approved by the Privacy Advisory Commission (PAC) and City Council, although the source of the donated funds for the drones is under an open and ongoing investigation with the City of Oakland. It was the latest effort by the residents of Oakland Chinatown in response to the rise in violent crimes and targeted hate-crime attacks against Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Earlier, community leaders had also called for more surveillance cameras and more police presence.

Many in the city of Oakland felt differently after the murder of George Floyd, when thousands marched in protest to the mayor’s residence. Even within Oakland Chinatown, generational and other divisions run through the community, where hundreds attended a rally denouncing more police as a solution to the crime problem, and calling to instead address root causes of poverty and lack of mental health resources. Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, who had advocated for more police in Chinatown, promoted police reform rather than defunding.

The next summer in 2021, overriding public sentiment swayed the Oakland City Council to defund the OPD in a 6-2 vote, but just six months later the council voted to re-fund the police. It was the end of 2021 – the deadliest year in Oakland since 2006. And thus the stage had been set for a community-driven “bottoms-up” approach to implement a drone program in Oakland, as the donation to the OPD from the Oakland Chinatown community of District 2 enabled the drones to take flight throughout all seven districts of the city.

Was it too late? The donation of three drones to the OPD in March 2022 was intended to free up police officers and keep them safer, but just one month after the drone program was launched the OPD was still stretched beyond their limits. Of course, smart technologies were never meant to be a full solution. But despite the drone donation and the City Council vote months ago to re-fund the police and add two more police academies as well as 60 police officers to the department, the city remains in a public-safety crisis.

Sergeant Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers’ Association (OPOA), shared that police officers were leaving Oakland at a record rate to go to other communities due to a lack of support from the city. When asked about a recent smash-and-grab robbery and other burglary crimes, Sgt. Donelan replied, “Investigate? We’re not even responding to them! There are 2,000 calls for service a day in Oakland. Regularly, when we have over a hundred calls standing, we just stop going to crimes that involve burglary and auto theft, and we’re just focused on violent crimes – shootings and murders.”

Residents in Oakland have a 1 in 19 chance of being victimized in a property crime. Thus far, it does not appear as though the drones have brought the dawn.

By this time, it was five months after the Oakland City Council voted 6-1-1 to re-fund the police. Noel Gallo was the only council member who voted against it; he is also the chair of the Oakland Public Safety Committee. Then on May 18, Jun Anabo, a Filipino restaurant co-owner, was shot and killed in front of his 11-year-old son in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, a predominantly Latino neighborhood that is represented by Gallo. Gallo knew Anabo personally, having helped him open his restaurant, Lucky Three Seven. Talking with local news, Gallo conceded that “when it comes to the crime here in Oakland right now, it’s really out of control, and certainly we need more police officers on the street.”

City council members in the U.S. usually act as the legislative branch and policy-making body of city government, and there is typically a low voter turnout for local elections – a national average of approximately 24 percent and as low as 5 percent in some cities. As stated in the words of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in regards to public safety matters of police, it is important to “pay attention to the financial and policy decisions that the Council is making at this time.” These words ring even truer as smart city technologies emerge more in order to ensure privacy, security and public safety are balanced and a true “bottoms-up approach” is achieved to reflect the needs of all citizens.

In the case of the City of Oakland, the nine civilians who volunteer to serve on the city’s Privacy Advisory Commission (PAC) hold unparalleled oversight of the city’s purchase and use of surveillance technologies, advising the City Council on any and all matters through a privacy lens. Most certainly, addressing privacy concerns of citizens is essential for cities to successfully implement smart technologies; and Oakland’s PAC oversight model and surveillance ordinances have been looked to by other cities and privacy advocates. However, as of 2021, Hofer, who serves as chair of the PAC, was suing the city, OPD and City Attorney’s Office, and two other commissioners were considering resignations over their frustrations of working with city officials, which does bring into question the success and limitations of this model.

However the city moves forward – with its current PAC model or if Hofer gets what he seeks from the lawsuit – it will be critical for Oakland to find a successful way to move forward for the sake of all its citizens to effectively balance concerns of privacy, security, and public safety.

At the end of 2021 when Mayor Schaaf asked California Gov. Gavin Newsom for Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) and more California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers to combat crime, she was criticized by Hofer for calling upon the state for ALPRs for “mass surveillance.”

“Why can’t Oakland do it on its own?” asked Hofer, who also criticized elected officials throughout the country who “seem to have no better idea to reduce violent crime than ‘more of the same.’ It’s disheartening that Oakland is no different.”[2]

Oakland had, however, invested more in relatively new programs as alternative ways to combat violent crime back in June 2021 when the city council voted to defund the police and divert those funds to support the Department of Violence Prevention (DVP) and the Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program. And when the city council voted to refund the police just six months later in December 2021 – as was detailed in the second article of this series – it was not due to a lack of support for the newer violence prevention programs in Oakland. As expressed by Sgt. Donelan, the sentiment was more along the lines that “we may support your programs but we do not want less public safety at a time of skyrocketing violent crime.”

The DVP and MACRO are still active, although the DVP itself is now mired in controversy over allegations of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) against the head of the DVP. The former DVP deputy chief threatened a lawsuit against the city of Oakland after she was terminated, alleging gender discrimination, retaliation and harassment, as well as unequal pay. The MACRO program continues to move forward, with recent initiatives providing much-needed support services to help the homeless.

In a world impacted by unprecedented circumstances triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and a rising tide of violent crime across the nation, clearly there is no one fail-safe way forward to address public safety needs that will fit all cities, much less districts and communities within, and each of their unique needs. What teachable moments can other cities take from Oakland to effectively balance privacy, security and public safety in a way that is truly “bottoms-up” and fair to all citizens in different districts and communities with varying needs?

Oakland has one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States; the historic community dates back to the mid-1800s, when the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the U.S. during the Gold Rush and congregated to establish Chinatowns for safety in response to violent anti-Chinese discrimination in the form of murder, arson and assaults.

The citywide impacts of defunding the police in Oakland worsened many issues affecting public safety in Chinatown, which was facing a severe rise in anti-Asian hate crimes amid overall skyrocketing crime that devastated the entire city after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. These unique circumstances drove a citizen-led bottoms-up approach to implement smart city surveillance technology – with citizens choosing to pay to fund the drone program with the OPD, which bypassed a restriction exerted by the PAC, which had recommended earlier in 2020 that the City Council refuse public funds for drones for the OPD.

This Oakland series of A City’s Journey Toward Smart Solutions has focused on smart-city technologies largely centered on public safety, from smart surveillance cameras and drones to the PAC oversight of all surveillance technologies in the city, along with other factors relevant to public safety such as the city council vote to defund and then, just half a year later, to re-fund the police.

Looking ahead to upcoming plans for Oakland’s next moves towards smart solutions, big plans loom for smart parking and smart mobility in Lake Merritt and along the waterfront, which, the city hopes, will also help to improve public safety for citizens.


[1] See NeighborhoodScout, https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ca/oakland/crime

[2] See David DeBolt, https://oaklandside.org/2021/12/14/mayor-schaaf-to-gov-newsom-oakland-needs-license-plate-readers-chp-officers/

Amy Mintz
Amy Mintz is a Ph.D. Candidate in Counterterrorism at Capitol Technology University. She is an NCAE-C PhD Scholar and her doctoral research is focused on ways to contribute to the cyber forensics domain by applying counterterrorism techniques to mitigate challenges of protecting critical infrastructure in smart cities. More information about her dissertation research can be seen at SmartCity360.info with featured SMEs who are leading experts from the public and private sector, including the Department of Homeland Security and local government. Her academic background includes an M.S. in Digital Forensics and Graduate Studies in Cybersecurity Policy, and Curriculum and Instruction. Mintz directs, supervises and oversees all operations and affairs of the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, eGirl Power, that she founded over ten years ago to educate and support the youth through signature events and programs, which have earned endorsements and testimonials from leading experts in the nonprofit and education sectors, and have been featured in numerous publications including USA Today, the Official Harvard Site of Multiple Intelligences, and Philanthropy Journal. In addition, she also oversees the partnership between the Center for Public Safety for Women (CPSW) and her 501(c)3 nonprofit organization for the #StopGBV Initiative to educate and raise awareness of issues related to Gender-Based Violence.

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