Police Surveillance Put Under Civilian Oversight in Cambridge

The Cambridge City Council passed the Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) ordinance Monday, Dec. 10, making Cambridge the first city in the Boston area to implement civilian oversight over the use of police surveillance technologies.

The new law says that no city department can fund, use, acquire, or use any surveillance technologies without first getting a vote of approval by the Cambridge City Council. In addition, any previously acquired surveillance technology that a department wishes to put to a new use must be put before the city council again and get another vote of approval.

Before the city council puts these items to a vote, the police department will have to make a public report on what exactly they’re requesting. The report will be required to highlight things like operational costs, and potential civil liberties violations that the use of the surveillance technologies could result in.

The nucleus of the CCOPS ordinance was written by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in late 2016 as a way to push forward responsible and transparent law enforcement reform as the nation became more aware of police militarization, overreach, and corruption.

“Far too often, police departments across Massachusetts and the country obtain invasive, costly surveillance equipment without any meaningful transparency or oversight,” Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a press release. “This ordinance charts against that trend, requiring public engagement before the Cambridge police can acquire surveillance technology like drones and cell phone tracking devices.”

The ACLU’s Massachusetts branch worked closely with Cambridge city officials, including Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard, Jr., to join the ranks of other CCOPS-backed cities like Seattle, Washington, and Oakland, California.

“The newly ordained Surveillance Ordinance is the culmination of a well-thought-out, fair and collaborative process,” Commissioner Bard said in a press release. “The Surveillance Ordinance creates the type of transparency and protocols we strive to deliver as we seek to further enhance the safety of our residents, while protecting people’s civil rights and civil liberties.”

In most U.S. cities, police departments can purchase, receive, and use surveillance technologies without informing elected officials or the public.

This can expand police powers without the public’s consent, and lead to violations of people’s personal freedom. For example, information secretly collected by these surveillance technologies can be given to Immigration and Customs Enforcement looking to deport or detain undocumented immigrants.

“We read daily some new infringement upon our civil rights and free exercise of democracy; this ordinance could not be more timely,” said Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern in a press release. “[The CCOPS ordinance] builds institutional accountability and transparency, and considers the potential impacts to communities of color or other marginalized communities before policies are implemented.”

Click here to read the new law in its entirety.  

Zach Mobrice is a contributor of Spare Change News and a wage-worker in the city of Boston. He is a journalism graduate of Roger Williams University.

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