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Regional police officials react to new facial recognition restriction law

REGION — On Dec. 4, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) Chiefs’/Sheriff’s Management Committee met to discuss compliance with a new state law restricting law enforcement’s ability to obtain and retain facial recognition data with their mobile body camera devices.

That law, Assembly Bill 1215, was signed on Oct. 8 by Gov. Gavin Newsom. It calls for a prohibition on law enforcement agencies in the state from “installing, activating, or using any biometric surveillance system in connection with an officer camera or data collected by an officer camera.”

The legislation is known colloquially as the Body Camera Accountability Act.

“Facial and other biometric surveillance would corrupt the core purpose of officer-worn body-worn cameras by transforming those devices from transparency and accountability tools into roving surveillance systems,” reads the legislation. “The use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance would disproportionately impact the civil rights and civil liberties of persons who live in highly policed communities.”

Members of the SANDAG Chiefs’/Sheriff’s Management Committee, whose membership consists of chiefs of police of cities throughout San Diego County, said they did not agree with that assessment. Disagreements aside and to comply with the law, though, they will now share fingerprint biometric information via a database also utilized by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department in place of facial recognition technology.

San Diego County law enforcement agencies had previously shared facial recognition data through a program called TACDIS, or the Tactical Identification System. All of the data is shared under a program called ARJIS, or the Automated Regional Justice Information System.

Chula Vista Chief of Police Roxana Kennedy said she sees the movement, which put AB 1215 into action, as “ideologically driven” by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a national civil liberties advocacy group based in San Francisco.

“The way it went out to the media is like we’re using surveillance, that we’re going out and actively surveilling people,” said Kennedy. “And when you hear all the things they say it sounds kind of horrible. But in reality, what we were doing is using an existing database to match up people when we need to get the wrong people off the street that are creating challenges to our community and committing crimes.”

Carlsbad Chief of Police Neil Gallucci said that fingerprinting also has shortcomings that make completing an investigation harder to do. Calling AB 1215 “politically motivated legislation,” he pointed to the example of someone who commits a theft at a retail store, gets caught on camera doing so, but then cannot have his face corroborated with a facial recognition database if detained during a law enforcement investigation.

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a different view on the matter. The group argues that collection of facial recognition data has the potential to ensnare innocent people into the criminal justice system.

“This technology has harmful effects on our communities today. For example, face recognition technology has disproportionately high error rates for women and people of color,” wrote Electronic Frontier Foundation in a September blog post calling for the bill’s passage. “Making matters worse, law enforcement agencies conducting face surveillance often rely on images pulled from mugshot databases, which include a disproportionate number of people of color due to racial discrimination in our criminal justice system.”

Escondido Chief of Police Craig Carter, who will retire this month, said that state-level law enforcement lobbying groups are seeking changes in the language for AB 1215 which would make it less far-sweeping in nature. According to Carter, having facial recognition available has put proven helpful in probes for his police unit.

“It’s a very valuable tool. It’s so valuable that we’re trying to find another way to identify people by their fingerprints here because we can’t afford to not have that technology,” said Carter. “So, now we’re forced to find another way to do it because identifying someone in the field that’s right in front of you, in a quick way, is just so valuable for an officer’s time and a suspect’s time and just the community time, based on wasting money.”

Carter added that he is hopeful that Newsom will be open to amendments to AB 1215.

“The law enforcement agencies and the different associations have a concern with this, so they’re always trying to make sure that if a law is enacted, that we amend it if needs to be amended,” Carter said. “In this particular case, I think it needs to be amended.”

The legislative session for the 2020 California Legislature begins on Jan. 6.

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