The Berkeley City Council is about to make a mistake to the tune of half a million dollars. Certainly, it is not its biggest boondoggle; nor will it be its last, but nonetheless an unforced error based on ignoring facts and making unsubstantiated claims.

I speak of more than half a million dollars allocated for almost certainly ineffectual surveillance cameras in West and South Berkeley, ostensibly to reduce crime in those areas. This money is to be blessed by the council on June 13 with the mandated approval or rejection of a policy regulating the cameras’ use.

(These cameras were first proposed in the fall of 2021 when a spate of gun violence took place in West Berkeley and calls to do something about it rang out, reasonably, from its residents.)

By law, the council must seek the advice of the Police Accountability Board (PAB) when proposing surveillance equipment. In particular, the PAB was asked to investigate the efficacy of the proposed cameras by the council’s Public Safety Committee, and in producing a fifty-page report on the cameras wrote: “Council Members Taplin and Kesarwani cite a 2011 Urban Institute study entitled ‘Evaluating the Use of Public Surveillance Cameras for Crime Control and Prevention.’ That study of three large cities—Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.—concluded that fixed surveillance cameras could reduce crime, but only “when actively monitored” in real-time.”

In testimony to the council in May, Police Chief Jen Louis confirmed that there were no plans — and no budget — to actively monitor any surveillance cameras.

This contradiction has been brought up at least three times by the PAB and the public — twice before the Public Safety Committee and once before the council — as each of them considered the matter earlier this year, yet the sponsors of the legislation refused to respond to, nay even acknowledge, this fatal flaw in their proposal.

What is the cost of half a million-dollar boondoggle? You might say the money and person-power wasted, but that is the least of it when we are talking about people getting hurt or killed. The real issue is the opportunity cost of not doing something that might actually reduce violence, such as bike and foot patrols, implementing the Ceasefire protocol and gunfire victim hospital visits by violence interrupters such as Youth Alive. At the May council meeting, members of the public begged the council to implement Ceasefire, yet while it was approved in concept in 2020, it has yet to be effectuated.

The problematic nature of the likely ineffectiveness of these surveillance cameras is only amplified by considering their Orwellian nature. Big Brother will — literally — be watching: The video is to be stored and available for a year. But when these cameras fail to achieve their goals, instead of demanding their removal, the same voices that promote them now will almost certainly demand more and more of them, covering every street corner and alley, tracking everyone.

We have a choice. We can proceed down the path to a surveillance state, with little or nothing to show for it in reduced violence and much to lose in civil liberties, or we can choose to devote our limited resources to those things that actually work.

The council needs to bury the surveillance camera program on Tuesday, reallocating its funds to the safety and benefit of all.

JP Massar is a longtime Berkeley activist, and a member of McGee-Spaulding Neighbors in Action, Oakland Privacy, and Strike Debt Bay Area.