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A City’s Journey to Smart Solutions: Eyes in the Sky

A closer look into this private donation from the OCIC and the source of funds reveals some troubling details and raises some very serious questions.

This article is the fourth 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, and the third installment here.

In March 2022, local news broke that an $80,000 private donation had been made to launch a drone program for the Oakland Police Department (OPD).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4tzDm4GjAY OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong thanked the community for their help in providing the three new drones, which he emphasized would be used for very specific purposes, such as search-and-rescue for missing persons in remote areas, and he stressed that they would keep officers safer, especially in cases of search warrants of high safety risk to officers. Armstrong called it “a step forward for Oakland, because probably a couple years ago one wouldn’t imagine that you would get drones in the City of Oakland.”[1]

While the Privacy Advisory Commission (PAC) had adopted the City Council policy on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in 2018 to approve of the use of drones by the OPD, the city thus far had been reluctant to fund the technology, despite most law enforcement agencies having UAV. In 2020 the PAC recommended that the City Council deny public funds for drones for the OPD due to the economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, and instead encouraged the use of drones acquired by third parties with the condition that the OPD follow the relevant use policy adopted earlier that year to minimize any possible misuse of surveillance technology.

The new drones came equipped with a thermal camera, spotlight and public address speaker system – but no facial recognition capability, which was banned by the PAC in the revision of the 2019 Surveillance Ordinance in Oakland. In accordance with policy, video footage would only be stored for five days unless it was part of a criminal investigation. While policy allowed for the use of drones at sideshows, it did not permit using the drones as tools of surveillance at protests “at least not now” and Armstrong expressed that the OPD could revisit this later with the PAC if they felt it could be an effective tool for an aerial view to help manage crowds.

The news announcement credited Chinatown businesses, which had been hard hit by the violent crime from the public safety and economic fallouts caused by the dual pandemic of COVID-19 and anti-Asian hate, for contributing to improving the community and drawing customers back to the area. But as Stewart Chen, president of the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council (OCIC), noted, “all of that will mean less if our community is not protected.” The $80K private donation was made by the OCIC and California Waste Solutions, and Chen emphasized “hopefully this will keep Oakland safe, not just Chinatown, because we could easily just provide one or two drones but we provided enough drones to cover the entire city.”

Most certainly, improvements to public safety in Chinatown and all seven districts have been sorely needed in Oakland, a city wrecked with escalating violent crime. But a closer look into this private donation from the OCIC and the source of funds reveals some troubling details and raises some very serious questions. How the OCIC came to seize control of $1.2 million in tax revenue taken from low-income immigrant residents and small-business merchants is now under an open and ongoing investigation with the City of Oakland. The formal request for the investigation, prosecution, and holding of taxpayer funds was submitted to the Oakland City Council, City Auditor and City Attorney by Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce (OCCC), after he was notified by a board member from the Center for Public Safety in January 2022 of funds disbursement and spending not in accordance with the intended use and original purpose of the self-assessed property tax that had been agreed to by property owners in Chinatown.

To understand how it all ties together, one must look back to the origins, relations, and roles played by the OCCC, OCIC, and the Oakland Chinatown Community Benefit District (CBD). The OCCC is nearly 40 years old, formed in 1985 to promote business in the Asian community. As shown on public record, the OCIC is a very new California nonprofit organization: their first interim board meeting was in late September 2021 and their first board meeting in late October 2021. As stated by Carl Chan, the OCIC is the Oakland Chinatown CBD renamed; Chan has alleged that in 2021 City Councilmember Nikki Bas (who represents District 2 where Chinatown is located) and her supporters had “hijacked the CBD for political gain.”

Steps to start and form the CBD had first started years ago, spearheaded by Carl Chan and sponsored by the OCCC organization. It had not been an easy task for Chan to convince property owners to vote in favor of the special assessment property tax to form the CBD; he emphasized the benefits of the CBD that would focus on improving the community through litter removal, graffiti removal, pressure washing, and enhancing public safety. The George Floyd protests had devastated many businesses in Oakland Chinatown, and even before the COVID-19 global pandemic triggered the dual pandemic of COVID-19 and anti-Asian hate in Oakland Chinatown convincing small-business owners to pay any additional fees was not an easy task. It took Carl Chan 10 years to convince many of the businesses, many of which had a cash-only model, to accept credit and debit cards. “It’s almost like pulling teeth – even harder than that. I understand why – their profit margin is so low and if they’re using credit cards, there will be fees.”[2]

What got many business owners to make the change was the rise of violent crime and theft, and the targeting of Asian elders attacked for cash. The very inception of the CBD was a result of the devastating effects that the 2020 year had on Oakland Chinatown, where over 50 percent of small businesses had closed down. Some small-business owners were keeping their business open just so they could pay a living wage to their employees; their businesses were not even making any profits. The CBD was seen as a way to improve the community with funds to help restore their commercial fabric, public areas and the “safety of the public rights of way through Chinatown”.

The CBD was set up to be managed by a new nonprofit organization with a local Board of Directors, who would be appointed by members of the district and manage the funds as designated for the 10-year term. After the vote by property owners in favor of the self-assessed property tax, an Interim Board was planned to set up the nonprofit organization for the CBD and to elect the permanent board that would manage the CBD under its bylaws. In order to qualify, the Interim Board members would need to be property owners – as they were the ones who paid the taxes.

As described in the formal letter to the Oakland City Council, in September 2021 a CBD meeting was hosted by OCCC President Chan for the purpose of electing the Interim Board, when Stuart Chen (OCIC president) and other individuals who had no history of involvement with the CBD disrupted the meeting. For this reason the meeting was postponed by the OCCC, and rescheduled for two weeks later.

As shared by Chan before the rescheduled meeting, Councilmember Bas asked Chan to let her host the meeting, and the groups who had disrupted the earlier meeting were her supporters. She also offered city resources to help conduct the meeting. When Bas hosted the meeting just four days later, her staff moderated the Zoom meeting with full control over participants. As alleged by Chan, during the meeting “she allowed her supporters to self-appoint themselves to the CBD interim board without verification that they were property owners, business owners or tenants within the boundaries of the CBD.”[3]

Repeated requests by the OCCC to delay appointment of the interim board until proper verification could be made to ensure that requirements stipulated in the bylaws were being met were refused by Bas. As shown in the formal investigation request letter, Stewart Chen “insisted on the Interim Board vote and became president … he then changed the CBD name to the OCIC”. Bas and her supporters were the ones who conducted the vote count, “indicating a conflict of interest” and on top of everything else “there were 48 interim board members but the vote count did not match the number … it was so chaotic and it was difficult to know who actually voted.” When concerns were later taken to Bas’ chief of staff, the councilmember’s response to Chan was that she wanted to “move on.”

In December 2021, a Disbursement Agreement was entered into between the City of Oakland and the OCIC, and a Work Order Contract was signed on January 26, 2021, for the 10-year Business Improvement District Distribution agreement for “pass through property taxes.” The first disbursement was allocated as 50 percent of the annual appropriation. It drew from a $1.2 million fund that was composed of the annual parcel assessment, which had been agreed to and paid for by property owners in the Oakland Chinatown CBD.

It was then, in January 2022, when Chan learned of the scheduled fund disbursements to OCIC from a board member from the Center for Public Safety, which had conducted an investigation for Carl Chan, and it was then when Chan went immediately to the city auditor for help with starting an investigation into potentially unlawful wrongdoings.

Jessica Chen, executive director of the OCCC, who had served on the steering committee at the CBD, had shared in late 2021 that she did not know what was going on with the CBD, and Chan himself had not been aware of the scheduled funds withdrawal – the first of which was 50 percent of the $1.2 million fund, until notified by CPS. Another 40 percent was slated for withdrawal at the end of April. Beyond questions raised in the investigation into whether the formation of the interim board was in accordance with the bylaws and whether the procedures were lawful, questions relevant to potential prosecution of improper use of the tax revenue funds are also brought up. From conflict-of-interest allegations over the new executive director position with a 3-year contract to an interim board member “without relevant experience” to the diversion of funds to benefit other interim board members, many concerning details are raised. Beyond this, the interim board has also tried to get rid of the requirement for two-thirds of the board to be property owners, even though they are the ones who pay this special assessment tax. The investigation remains open and ongoing.

The purchase of the drones for the OPD by OCIC Interim Board Chair Stuart Chen is also raised as a “major conflict on spending the money outside of the CBD district to purchase $75,000 drones for the OPD, which benefits residents outside of the CBD, a clear violation of the purpose of the self-tax, which is to keep the benefits within the district boundaries.” The OCCC letter to the Oakland City Council also requested the holding of the remaining funds until a full proper investigation was conducted. The letter was dated May 18, 2022, a month after 90 percent of funds were already scheduled to be disbursed.

As for the effectiveness of the drones to improve public safety in the City of Oakland, this remains to be seen and is discussed further in the next, and fifth, article in this series.

 

[1] See CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/sanfrancisco/news/oakland-police-drone-uav-private-donations/

[2] See CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/sanfrancisco/news/oakland-chinatown-cash-only-businesses-convert-to-credit-to-stop-attacks-on-asians/

[3] See Center for Public Safety, https://www.centerforpublicsafety.com/oakland/chinatown-cbd-investigation

Amy Mintz
Amy Mintz is a PhD Candidate in Counterterrorism at Capitol Technology University. 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 on counterterrorism, with an emphasis on critical infrastructure, is available at SmartCity360.info with featured SMEs for her research including leading experts from the private sector, 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. She recently co-founded the AAPI Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses its research on topics central to the well-being and security of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community to educate and raise awareness of these issues. The AAPI Institute is a nonprofit organization that branched off of her 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that she established more than ten years ago to empower girls in professional life. Mintz supervises, directs and oversees all operations and affairs of the nonprofit organization to educate and support the youth through signature events and programs, which has earned the endorsements and testimonials from leading experts in the nonprofit and education sectors. She has been featured and contributed to numerous publications including the Official Harvard Site of Multiple Intelligences and Philanthropy Journal.

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