The Berkeley Police Department’s (BPD) $70 million makes up a substantial 45 percent of Berkeley’s general city budget. Consequently, it seems as if BPD would be adequately equipped to reduce crime. Yet some still believe that video surveillance is a necessary addition to the public scene in order to keep our streets safe. Luckily, the Berkeley City Council placed a ban on facial recognition technology, which has been growing in popularity among police departments around the US. There are various reasons as to why video surveillance is also problematic, including the obvious invasion of privacy it would bring about and the racism it could lead to in law enforcement tactics. These threats indicate that introducing video surveillance technology to BPD has the potential to cause more harm than good for the citizens of Berkeley.
During a City Council meeting on November 10, Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani proposed to install surveillance cameras throughout the city, with a focus on South and West Berkeley. The report described, “The recordings would be an investigative resource which officers could access while investigating specific crimes and could assist in a reduction of crime. This would be an additional element of our Police Department’s crime prevention strategies.” The proposal was created after the recent shooting of Berkeley resident Sereinat’e Henderson on Ellis Street, near Malcolm X Elementary. Though this seems well-intentioned, the installation of surveillance cameras would further the mass incarceration of people of color (POC), especially because South and West Berkeley hold the majority of Berkeley’s residents of color.
Berkeley made the right decision in rejecting facial recognition technology, and video surveillance is likely to have similar discriminatory effects. In a study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), it was found that the accuracy of facial recognition technology on a white person is significantly better than the accuracy of an African American or Asian person. Even if the surveillance cameras themselves aren’t embedded with facial recognition technology, those who handle them are likely prone to using racial bias in their work. The Cross-Race effect, in which members of one racial group are able to identify other members of that group with more accuracy than a different race, has major potential to increase false identifications. With the video footage in the hands of police, which is made up of 65.5 percent white officers nationwide, false arrests of non-white residents are a concern.
In an age where anti-racism work is finally gaining momentum, falsely identifying Black residents as suspected criminals would be extremely counterproductive and dangerous for the community. BPD should respect the rights and privacy of Berkeley residents, and therefore should not implement video surveillance cameras throughout Berkeley. Instead, BPD should spend their budget on demilitarizing themselves and making reforms to reduce racist policing.
Update: This article was changed for grammatical reasons.