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Oakland Chinatown

A City’s Journey to Smart Solutions (3): How Hate Crimes Fueled Citizens’ Call for Surveillance

After the Covid-19 global pandemic began in 2020, Oakland Chinatown quickly became an epicenter of anti-Asian hate, reflecting a nationwide rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents, amid a public safety crisis that wracked the entire city of Oakland with violent crime.         

Denouncing the rise in targeted attacks against Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law in 2021. The bipartisan legislation was created to address challenges of responding to hate crimes by improving resources and training for local and state law enforcement to identify and report hate crimes to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and to address the barriers related to language and culture that are faced by affected communities in reporting hate crimes. Also in 2021, the FBI designated hate crimes as a top national priority, after a 25% increase in hate crimes was reported over the past five years, reaching 7,300 in 2019; and racially or ethnically motivated threats are identified as a category of domestic terrorism (DT) by the FBI, and classified by this agency and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as one of main categories of ideologies of Domestic Violent Extremists (DVEs).

By the end of 2021 in Oakland, reports documented 26 anti-AAPI hate crime victims and 15 suspects—but not one single case was referred for prosecution in the end. Carl Chan, known as the Mayor of Chinatown in Oakland and who himself was attacked in a violent hate crime, was a vocal advocate for more police officers and the installation of more surveillance cameras to protect community members from the rise of anti-Asian hate and violent crimes. The dual pandemic of both Covid-19 and the rise of anti-Asian hate that hit Oakland Chinatown had left the community reeling from the devastating impacts to both public safety and the economy.

During this time period, over half of small businesses in Oakland Chinatown had closed down. The impacts of brutal crime in the city were felt in their respective District 2 and all other districts throughout the city; and the high crime had exacerbated the economic detriments felt by small business owners already struggling from the effects of Covid-19 lockdowns. In some communities, restaurant owners were closing their doors as early as 5pm because they were choosing to risk their livelihoods rather than their lives, as conveyed by one of five Chamber of Commerce leaders who convened at a press conference in December 2021 to urge the city council to “refund the police or refund our tax dollars”.

Just one month before, Carl Chan, President of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce (OCCC), had called upon California Governor Newsom to declare a state of emergency for the City of Oakland and to send in the California Highway Patrol (CHP): “I’m not only asking you to patrol Chinatown. I’m asking you to send CHP to the city of Oakland, all areas, we need your help.” Oakland Police Department (OPD) Chief LeRonne Armstrong agreed with Chan’s call for help, admitting that the department needed assistance from the state; and Mayor Libby Schaaf likewise called to the governor to increase CHP and add more surveillance cameras.
As explained in the first article of this series, in Oakland all city use of surveillance technologies is advised upon by the city’s Privacy Advisory Commission (PAC); and the PAC holds unmatched oversight compared to any other U.S. city civilian advisory board. The city’s process to acquire or use surveillance technology starts with the City notifying the PAC of its wish to purchase or use surveillance technology, for which an entity from the City must submit a Surveillance Impact Report and a proposed Surveillance Use Policy for the PAC to review. After reviewing and gathering input from relevant parties, the PAC then makes recommendations to the City Council to adopt, modify or reject the proposed Surveillance Use Policy, followed by a public hearing.

While it was not clear if surveillance technologies by CHP would be outside the scope of PAC oversight, earlier attempts to install surveillance cameras were blocked by the PAC when a Use Policy for a City of Oakland/OCCC Surveillance Camera Grant Program was submitted to the PAC, and then rejected by the PAC. The $75K city grant fund would have been awarded to the OCCC for security camera installation on private property in various locations throughout Chinatown to deter criminals and help with criminal investigations. Authorized use would be restricted to the OCCC as the sole owners of the data, which would be stored for no longer than 30 days; and access would only be made available to OPD for criminal investigations. The Impact Statement specified that signs would be displayed in areas with security cameras to notify people that the area was under video surveillance.

While the PAC has no formal proposal specific to surveillance cameras, use of surveillance cameras for policing is debated on an as-needs basis. The PAC had also prohibited the usage of facial recognition technology in a surveillance ordinance update in May 2019, and for this reason the City of Oakland/OCCC Use Policy for the Surveillance Camera Grant Program was rejected by the PAC over facial recognition capabilities of the surveillance cameras. The security camera company had stated that the camera’s facial recognition capabilities could be turned off to comply with local laws, but privacy advocates in Oakland accused the company of misleading allegations.

In September 2021, the cloud-based security cameras did eventually make their way to Oakland Chinatown, but it was not from the city grant program. A nearby synagogue in Oakland funded the cost of installing several cameras near a cross-section, with plans to adopt more camera installations. The video security company that donated 20 cameras to OCCC pledged 100 cameras to help combat anti-AAPI hate crimes. But technical issues abounded for Chan, who told the Center for Public Safety (CPS) in Washington D.C. that the lack of Wi-Fi in the neighborhood had rendered many of the cameras unusable, leaving him to work with wireless carriers and building owners to try to install Internet service. Only several cameras had been installed as of midway through 2022.

Chan has made it a point to emphasize that the security cameras were not intended to take the place of police; and a fellow Chinatown resident expressed, “We in Chinatown support police presence. We are against defunding the police.” The press conference in Chinatown, with the five Chamber of Commerce leaders, was held on the day of the city council vote in late 2021 with the scheduled agenda item to vote on the matter of refunding the OPD. The Chamber leaders were adamant in calling upon the city council to “refund the police or refund our tax dollars.”

As mentioned in the second article in this series, the Oakland City Council did vote to refund the police in December 2021, backtracking on an earlier vote to defund the police just six months earlier when they adopted Councilmember Nikki Bas’ proposed budget amendment. Bas also reversed her decision in a half year time span to refund the police. However, it was not the first time she made a one-eighty on the same matter.

In January 2021, Bas had been present at a press conference in Oakland Chinatown to show support for additional law enforcement and resources requested by the community, located in District 2, which is represented by Bas. Mayor Libby Schaaf made it a point to call out Bas as the council member had brought a proposal to cut $25 million from the police department the previous summer “as a political statement, not because of operational or financial needs.” The Mayor urged the crowd “I hope you do not forget...we have to pay attention to the financial and policy decisions that the Council is making at this time.”

When it comes to debating surveillance issues in Oakland, the influence that the PAC has on the City Council is quite evident. As for policies adopted by the PAC, between 2017 and 2019 the PAC adopted several policies related to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), cellular site simulators (Stingray), mobility data sharing and a streetline parking program. There is also an open ongoing dispute over Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs), which the PAC recommended that the OPD shut down for two years due to violating their existing data policy.

The state of Oakland’s city affairs offers many teachable moments as each city navigates their own journey towards smart solutions to real problems experienced by its citizens. To successfully implement smart city technologies, city leadership is key. The Mayor is the CEO of the future smart city, and the city council members can be compared to its executives. The local power structure of each city may vary in the amount of authority held by the Mayor and by the city council—all elected city official positions. In Oakland, the PAC, comprised of nine civilian volunteers, is uniquely bestowed the power to advise and oversee all city matters related to surveillance technologies, which is unparalleled in any other U.S. city. And in this particular case, the wants and needs of many citizens of Chinatown, a community double impacted by fallouts from the Covid-19 pandemic and Asian hate, were not accommodated by the citizen-led PAC.  The success of the PAC model is also called into question over the current lawsuit against the City of Oakland, the OPD, and the City Attorney’s office.

The next article of this series will show how the city did successfully move forward with adding three brand new drones for the OPD to deploy throughout the city, which less than 10 years ago had voted to limit the DAC surveillance hub to the port only. How this came to be is a story that also emerged out of Chinatown, and spread to all seven districts in the City of Oakland.