Thursday, November 30, 2023

ACLU asks Virginia Beach to rethink ‘mass surveillance’ at Oceanfront

VIRGINIA BEACH — The American Civil Liberties Union penned a letter to leaders in Virginia Beach on Thursday asking the city to reconsider its plan to install 88 high-tech surveillance cameras at the Oceanfront.

Addressed to Mayor Will Sessoms, Vice Mayor Louis Jones and the nine members of Virginia Beach City Council, the ACLU’s letter states, “Recent stories indicate that Virginia Beach has yet to implement fully the plan to install 88 surveillance cameras at the Oceanfront. Good. That means city council has the opportunity to revisit whether the plan is a good one and the investment of scarce tax dollars in the technology is wise.”

The ACLU’s letter came in the wake of two articles written by Southside Daily that revealed that the Virginia Beach Police Department’s plan to install the surveillance cameras is three years behind schedule and $800,000 over budget.

The news organization’s most recent article about the project also showed that there is no end in sight for the full installation of all 88 surveillance cameras, which were slated to be in place by 2018.

The project was approved by Virginia Beach City Council in 2014, along with a 30-cent personal property tax increase that would fund a few public safety projects, including $7.3 million for the VBPD’s Oceanfront surveillance camera project, according to city budget archives.

The project was planned to roll out in three phases that would outfit the Oceanfront with new surveillance cameras by 2018; however, the first 25-camera phase remains incomplete. In October, city council approved another $800,000 to finish phase one of the project, according to city documents.

As for the other 63 surveillance cameras that would complete the project? It’s still the city’s intention to install them, but officials don’t know when that will happen, Virginia Beach spokeswoman Julie Hill wrote in an email.

“While there is the intent to install all of the cameras, there is no time frame for the other phases and they are not yet funded,” Hill wrote.

In 2015, Virginia Beach approved another $2.4 million that would complete phase two of the project; however, in February 2016, $4.7 million that was intended to pay for the remaining 63 cameras was taken and diverted to other projects, according to a Sept. 26 city council presentation.

Southside Daily questioned the city about the remaining budget for the Oceanfront surveillance camera project after analyzing budgets from the last three years.

But according to the ACLU, the fact that the cameras haven’t been installed yet is promising. The organization is now asking for leadership to rethink finishing the project on the basis that “mass surveillance” isn’t good for the Virginia Beach community and will not cut down crime, according to the letter.

“The use of government operated or sanctioned video surveillance cameras in public spaces is troubling in a democratic society,” the ACLU wrote. “Such cameras have not been shown to enhance public safety, and they make us all less free.”

The ACLU listed four reasons as to why the surveillance project may not be in the best interest of Virginia Beach citizens or those who come to visit the Oceanfront:

  • “Police, not cameras, fight crime”: The ACLU argued that the surveillance camera project funding would be better spent on community policing efforts.
  • “Government surveillance cameras are susceptible to abuse”: The ACLU wrote that information collected by surveillance cameras could be abused by people who bring their own biases and prejudices to work when operating them.
  • “The use of these systems and the data they collect will inevitably will be expanded”: The ACLU argued that the data collected by surveillance cameras will give the VBPD undue insight into the lives of people who are not breaking the law.
  • “Video surveillance will have a chilling effect on public life”: The ACLU wrote that cameras controlled by police may have an impact on the way people act in public because they could feel like they are being watched.

The ACLU wrote that it is the Virginia Beach City Council’s job to make sure that police surveillance is needed and that it is in the best interest of the community. The agency also said leadership should implement guidelines for projects — like the Oceanfront surveillance camera project — that allow for community control, according to the letter.

Those guiding principles could include, according to the ACLU, necessity, proportionality, transparency, accountability and independent oversight.

The ACLU also asked that city leaders make sure there are “compelling and documented” reasons that police surveillance is needed, and put policies in place that ensure that the data collected is disposed of quickly if it isn’t needed to solve crimes or for “other compelling government purposes,” according to the letter.

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