Berkeley has several surveillance cameras in place already, shown in blue. The new ones proposed are shown in red. Credit: Berkeleyside staff

The City Council has postponed a decision on surveillance over issues of video record retention, concerns from city workers who may be monitored and the scope of how and when cameras and footage should be used.

Proponents say the cameras will help police fight upticks in violent crime and keep police and residents safe. Opponents believe the cameras, in particular, will cause privacy issues.

The city has already approved $1.2 million for new surveillance cameras and has 10 locations where they want to place them. A city ordinance requires them to establish a written policy for the hardware, as they did for automated license plate readers and police officers’ body-worn cameras.

The police department is also seeking a written policy spelling out how and when they can ask outside agencies to fly drones over Berkeley.

The cameras would help police crack down on catalytic converter thefts, which have spiked in recent years, and shootings, which have spiked in recent weeks, police Sgt. Joseph LeDoux said Tuesday.

Drones, meanwhile, provide BPD a tool in de-escalating possibly violent confrontations, putting a camera — instead of eyes — on subjects who may be armed or volatile, police have said. While Berkeley police are not asking for permission to buy drones, they have said the devices should also be used in mass-casualty incidents, disasters, searches, hazardous material releases, sideshow investigations and more.

As far as surveillance cameras go, Hansel Aguilar, the city’s director of police accountability, said there were still some “lingering questions” about reconciling retention periods with state records laws and noted that, from a prevention standpoint, surveillance cameras are less effective without full-time monitoring, which has not been proposed.

Councilmember Kate Harrison said that footage from cameras that are not regularly monitored would not require as long a retention period as cameras that are, for example, those in jails. She recommended a 30-day retention period rather than the proposed yearlong period. In a written proposal, she also recommended limiting the surveillance cameras’ uses to “support specific and active criminal or administrative investigations” and “to respond to critical incidents or natural disasters.”

The policy the police department has in place would allow them to use the cameras to identify crimes, possible criminals and crime hotspots, “document officer and offender conduct,” “augment resources” and monitor foot and vehicular traffic.

The proposed policy, absent Harrison’s edits, would also allow the city to document city workers’ interactions with “customers.”

In response to concerns that footage pertinent to criminal investigations might be purged, police Chief Jen Louis told the council that police would retain that footage separately from other recordings.

Councilmember Sophie Hahn said there were “a number of missing pieces,” not least the matter that city departments other than police would have access to or custody of recordings from surveillance cameras.

The new cameras are proposed for 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
Berkeley already has surveillance cameras in San Pablo Park and two other locations. It wants to place them at 10 intersections too. Credit: Brian Hofer

The city already has cameras at San Pablo Park, the Berkeley Marina and the city’s transfer station.

Representatives from SEIU 1021, the union representing the city’s solid waste workers, accused the city of failing to properly bargain with the unit over updating the city’s camera policies.

Chris Naso, the union’s secretary, asked if the city’s proposed policy on documenting employees, employers and customers was already in practice, if unofficially.

“Our union is very concerned this policy proposes to use existing and new fixed surveillance cameras to watch our employees and discipline them,” Naso said.

Several council members spoke in favor of voting on policies related to camera uses for criminal investigations and postponing their uses for administrative or internal investigations to a later date, but ultimately the council voted not to extend the discussion past 11 p.m.

Harrison, Hahn, Ben Bartlett and Mayor Jesse Arreguín voted against extending the discussion. Terry Taplin, Rashi Kesarwani, Susan Wengraf, Rigel Robinson and Mark Humbert voted to continue. The motion failed as it would have required a two-thirds vote to pass.

Taplin rejected the notion that the council needed more time to consider the policy, and said after the vote that the cameras were an asset the city needed as soon as possible.

Every neighborhood in his district “has had shootings, daytime shootings, park shootings, grocery store shootings, late night shootings, there have been shootings outside of my mother’s window,” Taplin said. “This is a basic tool for criminal investigation that most cities, most jurisdictions have. There’s nothing that we gain by not having basic tools.”

The City Council next meets on June 6 and June 13.

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...