With new surveillance cameras already approved for use in the city, the Berkeley Police Department is working out the details for how to use them. At the same time, they are developing a policy for, in limited cases, borrowing drones from neighboring law enforcement agencies.

The City Council first approved $1.2 million for new cameras in December 2021.

Critics of the camera program have expressed fear that the city is slumping into a surveillance state. Proponents, however, have argued that it is a crucial tool for responding to rising crime rates in the city.

Police updated the council’s Public Safety Committee on Monday. Police Sgt. Joseph Ledoux said surveillance cameras are “a tool that is commonly used in many cities our size to address concerns over crime patterns, trends and currently the rise in crime in general.”

Surveillance cameras are already in operation at San Pablo Park, the Berkeley Marina and the city’s transfer station, according to a surveillance acquisition report from the Public Works Department.

Ledoux said city detectives had already used footage from San Pablo Park to follow up on investigations, and that police wanted more cameras, in part, to lessen spikes in shootings and grand thefts, including of catalytic converters.

The city is looking to install cameras at 10 intersections:

  • Sixth Street and University Avenue
  • San Pablo and University avenues
  • Seventh Street and Dwight Way
  • San Pablo Avenue and Dwight Way
  • Seventh Street and Ashby Avenue
  • San Pablo and Ashby avenues
  • Sacramento Street at Ashby Avenue
  • College and Ashby avenues
  • Claremont and Ashby avenues
  • 62nd and King streets

The Public Works Department would be responsible for maintaining the hardware and the recordings, and “will work to ensure that the video recordings are secured and only accessible to authorized personnel,” according to the report.

Like the department’s body-worn cameras and automated license plate readers, surveillance cameras would be governed by the city’s surveillance technology ordinance, which requires a “surveillance use policy” for each type of hardware the city or department intends to use.

The cameras would be used for “criminal or civil investigations,” including to prevent and identify crime, “respond to critical incidents,” help police identify and catch suspects, document conduct between police and suspects, monitor pedestrian and car traffic and, in the case of the transfer station, to prevent employee, supervisor or customer misconduct, according to the proposed policies.

Caltrans also operates several cameras within city limits along major roadways.

Residents and businesses willing to share footage also have the option of registering their private security cameras with police, so that officers can know when and where there might be video evidence in crimes they investigate.

The proposed uses for borrowed drones included mass-casualty incidents, disasters, lost or missing persons, releases of hazardous materials, sideshows, rescues, training and situations where officers would otherwise be put at risk, including those with armed or barricaded subjects, hostages and “other unforeseen exigent circumstances,” according to the proposed drone policy.

In 2012 the City Council considered, but ultimately rejected, a recommendation from the Peace and Justice Commission to make Berkeley a “No Drone Zone.” The council approved limited uses for the Berkeley Fire Department but, remaining leery of use by police, put a one-year moratorium on the police department’s use or acquisition of drones in 2015, even though the department had no plans to borrow or buy one.

The Police Accountability Board which, among other responsibilities, reviews police department policies, reviewed the proposed surveillance camera policy March 8 and expressed several reservations in a March 10 letter to Interim Police Chief Jen Louis.

The proposed “variety of purposes” for the cameras seemed at odds “with the Council’s intent to use the cameras ‘solely for the purpose of solving criminal investigations’” as expressed when the cameras were first approved over a year ago, the board wrote, among other concerns.

Limiting some cameras specifically to criminal investigations could be “problematic,” LeDoux said, because “we don’t really know if it’s a criminal investigation until we get out there and investigate.”

The board also took issue with the proposed policy for drones. In a Feb. 23 letter to Louis, the board wrote that the proposed policy “could have significant negative consequences for civil liberties and privacy, and harm the relationship between the police and the community,” among other criticisms.

The board also objected to a lack of “clarity” as to whether the police department sought to obtain drones of its own which, LeDoux said Monday, it did not.

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who represents District 1, which includes the Gilman District, Fourth Street neighborhood and other sections of Northwest Berkeley, referenced the recent hike in city crime rates, which police reported to the council earlier in March.

“Some of these violent crimes continue to be on the rise,” Kesarwani said. “Just the other night we had UC Berkeley students attempting to create a film for school who were robbed at gunpoint in my district, so to the extent that these cameras can deter crime and also apprehend people who have committed crimes, I think that they are a very cost effective way for our police department to be able to bring accountability for these crimes.”

Police are hoping to submit revised policy proposals to the City Council in May.

Avatar photo

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...