Opinion: Less surveillance and more Ceasefire is needed

We also need more public attention and more public participation to our local issues especially concerning the city budget.

Twice a year, the Berkeley City Council considers the city’s budget. The fall budget process, to be considered by the Budget and Finance Committee Monday and finalized at the council meeting Tuesday, focuses on how the prior fiscal year balanced out and whether the city identified additional revenues that should be reserved or used for city priorities. Revenues from last year for transfer taxes, for example, turn out to be approximately $5 million more than anticipated. It is up to the Council to decide how best to use these “excess” revenues.

This year, in a departure from past practice, the city manager has proposed which Council’s budget requests should move forward. In the past, the mayor and the Budget and Finance Committee examined what funds remained after administrative needs were met and recommended which Council referrals should be funded. Usually, these are requests for one-time funding.

The city manager’s recommendation that $200,000 be included for the Ceasefire program is welcome. Ceasefire would bring community members, law enforcement, and social service providers into a partnership to reduce gun violence across Berkeley. It is time to step up to stop the cycle of violence and promote community-centered efforts. The risk is nil, and the cost much lower than picking up the pieces after blood has been shed.

A high priority for spending includes over $1.3 million for (only seven) mass surveillance cameras capturing the travels of residents and others in only one to two neighborhoods. It represents nearly 67% of the funds available for new community priorities. The cost per camera is estimated between $115,000 and $190,000 for the first year. Every year thereafter, the city will be liable for $280,000 in ongoing data, software, and maintenance costs, not including the pricey police and IT staffing costs to operate the cameras each year.

The evidence that camera installations will reduce crime and violence is very thin. The reason stated for this expense is “to deter gun violence and obtain evidence to solve criminal investigations,” according to Councilmembers Terry Taplin and Rashi Kesarwani.

The proposal cites two studies supporting cameras’ efficacy in preventing crime; in fact, both studies undermine the argument. The first study, “The Eye of the Camera: Effects of security cameras on prosocial behavior,” from Twente University, The Netherlands, stated:

“Research in crime prevention suggests that cameras work best when targeted at specific behaviors in small, well-defined areas such as parking lots. (Environment and Behavior. Ratcliffe, 2006; Welsh & Farrington, 2003). Arguably, in complex settings such as large-scale retail environments and train stations where many factors compete for  attention, the presence of a security camera is less salient, its functionality severely limited, and the camera’s behavioral impact, therefore, less pronounced.”

Public areas such as parks and streets, where Berkeley’s cameras would be installed, are typically complex and poorly “defined” areas.

The Urban Institute report funded by the U. S. Department of Justice, “Evaluating the Use of Public Surveillance Cameras for Crime Control and Prevention,” makes clear that cameras are only effective in combating crime if concentrated and routinely monitored by trained staff.

Berkeley’s proposal states clearly that cameras would not be monitored and that there would be seven intersections in the city with cameras. Technology on its own will not solve the crime problem in Berkeley. In Washington D.C., cameras were not monitored and did not show a reduction in crime.

The lack of evidence for efficacy in camera installation, alongside the high cost in this difficult economic climate, argues for a smaller, targeted pilot project in Berkeley, if any.

The other question being debated is whether to allocate funds from a reserve of $1 million to police overtime established by the Council. The Council directed that these funds only be released if necessary and after analyzing how overtime has been used (for example, for mutual aid to other cities, which is reimbursed but the reimbursement is not shown alongside the expenditures, thus inflating the need for overtime). The argument for this use of the funds is confusing and non-intuitive. According to a report from City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, it includes statements such as, “The additional funds added for overtime helped to generate savings in sworn overtime,”according to a report from City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley. In fact, in the last fiscal year, the department asked for the release of only $180,000 of the $1 million in reserve. There has been no evidence presented that the balance is needed. Therefore, this request should not be funded unless and until the department provides the required analysis and documents the need.

Repetitive use of high overtime levels is a poor police practice. The police budget was increased in the last two cycles in order to prevent the need for massive overtime, albeit at the cost of great community concern. But the need for additional overtime never1seems to end. If a clear explanation and a path to eliminating massive overtime cannot be identified, this line should be eliminated from the budget proposal.

The city has an obligation to closely examine its expenditures. Yet the city manager is not recommending other council priorities, including the Berkeley Age Friendly Continuum to provide services to seniors, a pilot to electrify and reduce climate emissions in homes for low-income residents focused on affordable housing developments, and affordable one-time West Berkeley sidewalk and traffic improvements critical to climate and safety goals.

A council proposal for piloting free bus rides on Sundays for all Berkeleyans also is being ignored, despite strong support from the community and the AC Transit board.

But we also need our police department to have the tools to fight crime: Requests for additional bicycle patrols in West Berkeley, which bring the police closer to the community and have proven effective downtown, are not being advanced. Recommendations from the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (the city’s re-imagining public safety consultant) to give the Berkeley Police Department more investigators are not being taken up.

Additional cameras and police overtime that have not been justified should be lower priorities than these proven crime-fighting tools. At the same time, they trump other critical public safety investments such as those required to address the deepening climate emergency and the quality of the air we all breathe.

They say a budget is a statement of a city’s values — values that now appear related to the most surveillance-fortified and unwelcoming suburban cities.

We also need more public attention and more public participation in our local issues, especially concerning the city budget’s priorities and process. The information is public and available from several sources if you try to find it, and there are civic groups that will help you to be better informed and active. Let your City Council know that you know about these issues and care enough to give public comment with your concerns, and eventually with your vote.

Correction: Due to an editing error, Berkeleyside inadvertently changed the $1.3 million intended for cameras to license plates readers. This opinion has been updated.

This opinion was written by Adolfo Cabral on behalf of the Berkeley Progressive Alliance. Cabral is a retired, 20-year resident of Berkeley's District 2 and a former City Council candidate.