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11 U.S. cities to consider legislation to require greater transparency for police surveillance programs

Cities considering legislation to require greater transparency around police surveillance programs.

Lawmakers in New York, Washington and nine other U.S. cities are planning legislation that would require more transparency around police surveillance technologies, the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday.

The lawmakers want to require police agencies to disclose information about how they use surveillance technologies and how much they cost. The effort, coordinated by the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other advocacy groups, comes after police in cities including Baltimore began using such programs without informing the public.

"Our biggest goal is to create a vigorous debate," ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. He said the scale of such programs and the lack of transparency is troubling.

Where data has been made available, the ACLU said, it has shown that communities of color and low-income areas are monitored disproportionately.

Romero said the first 11 cities considering such legislation — including Seattle; Milwaukee; Richmond, Va.; Madison, Wis.; Miami Beach and Penscola, Fla.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Hattiesburg, Miss.; and Muskegon, Mich. — represent a beginning. He hopes that more jurisdictions will adopt similar measures.

The advocacy groups outlined several guidelines for cities considering such legislation.

They said surveillance technologies should not be funded without City Council approval, that local communities "should play a significant and meaningful role" in determining funding and implementation, that data should be reported to the public annually, and that technologies already in use should still be open for review by the public.

Police in Baltimore operated an aerial surveillance program for months, unknown to the public or top city officials, before it was reported by media outlets in August. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has said that the program was in a trial stage and that the department would include input from the public in any decision to continue it.

The ACLU of Maryland has said it plans to propose legislation to the Baltimore City Council that would prevent the department from acquiring new surveillance technology without public discussion. State Del. Curt Anderson is looking to propose regulations in the next General Assembly session.

New York City Councilman Daniel Garodnick said police should be able to use surveillance technology, but he's helping to craft legislation that will give legitimacy to departments under increasing scrutiny.

More transparency will also help safeguard civil liberties, he said.

"Government should not be operating under a veil of secrecy," Garodnick said. And the public has a right to know how tax dollars are being used, he said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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