The Oakland City Council voted unanimously early Wednesday morning to accept $2.2 million in federal funding to create a surveillance center in the heart of the city, and also gave the green light to a proposal banning protesters from carrying items such as hammers and spray paint during demonstrations.
“I think both show that the concern about safety in Oakland is a very high priority and the City Council is trying to take every reasonable means to make our city safer,” council president Pat Kernighan said.
The two controversial public safety measures were approved at a heavily attended council meeting Tuesday night that stretched into the early morning hours today.
The council first approved the creation of the Domain Awareness Center, a joint city and port surveillance center that will be located at the Office of Emergency Services on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in downtown Oakland.
Center staff will be able to view surveillance footage captured by more than 130 cameras already located at the port, and from four existing cameras on traffic signals at intersections of Hegenberger Road and Edgewater Drive; Hegenberger Road and Doolittle Drive; Airport Access Road and Doolittle Drive; and 98th Avenue and Empire Road, Oakland Emergency Services Director Renee Domingo said.
Police viewing those screens will simultaneously be able to see real-time crime maps displaying locations where the city’s gunshot detection system has been activated, Domingo said.
City officials said the center will improve Oakland’s ability to respond to major public safety threats such as earthquakes, fires and terrorism by making real-time information available to first responders.
Authorities will use the center “to actively monitor critical port facilities, utility infrastructure, city facilities and roadways,” a city staff report reads.
If approved, a future phase of the project could expand the program to also stream footage from BART, AC Transit and Caltrans cameras located throughout Oakland to the Domain Awareness Center, Domingo said.
The program has drawn sharp opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and others worried about privacy.
ACLU attorney Linda Lye sent a letter to the council ahead of Tuesday night’s vote saying that the center would “allow for widespread warrantless surveillance of Oakland residents.”
Councilwoman Libby Schaaf told attendees at the meeting, “We are going to take advantage of the tools we have at hand to make our city safe,” drawing shouts and boos from some audience members.
The council also asked staff members to draft amendments to the Domain Awareness Center program meant to safeguard citizens’ privacy, Kernighan said.
Councilwoman Dan Kalb said today, “I understand people’s concerns and I think they’re valid” and pointed out that the added provisions will limit how the surveillance center can be used to gather and retain information.
“We’ve made a genuine attempt not to do this willy-nilly and instead do this in a very careful way,” Kalb said.
He also said the council will have a chance to review the program’s limits when the matter comes back to the council in March for final approval before it’s implemented next summer.
Schaaf said that the surveillance system only has the capacity to store video footage for 35 days.
The council also approved an ordinance proposed by Councilman Noel Gallo that bans people from bringing objects such as hammers, clubs, wrenches, slingshots, spray paint cans and other dangerous items to protests.
“The Oakland City Council is very much in favor of people expressing their political opinions and the right to have peaceful demonstrations, but we do not tolerate vandalism,” Kernighan said today.
The measure was approved after some protesters who rallied against the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin earlier this month shattered storefront windows and tagged buildings in downtown Oakland.
Gallo said the damage to downtown businesses and the adjacent Chinatown district included broken windows, graffiti and arson. In addition, a waiter at the restaurant Flora was hit in the face with a hammer during a protest on July 15. The waiter was treated at a hospital and released.
Kalb said that although he supports banning items such as hammers and wrenches, he abstained because he’s concerned that nonviolent protesters could be arrested for something minor such as carrying a protest sign that doesn’t meet specifications.
He also said he thinks the ordinance needs more refinement and discussion because he believes it doesn’t have a clear definition of what a demonstration is.
But Schaaf said she believes the council addressed Kalb’s concerns by making revisions that allow people to bring normal-size wooden poles to protests for the purpose of carrying signs.
“We’ve modified it to reduce room for discretion” in the way that police enforce it, Schaaf said.
She also said that if the ordinance is approved at its second reading in September and becomes law the council will review it in two years to see if there are any problems with the way the Oakland Police Department implements it.
Tuesday’s meeting was the council’s last regular session until mid-September.
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