From the discovery of Baltimore’s secret aerial surveillance program to North Carolina limiting the public’s access to police body and dash cam footage, police surveillance is at the forefront of public debate.

Many states are beginning to introduce legislation to ensure transparency between the public and police forces, as well as to make sure privacy rights are protected.

While many politicians and police forces believe increased surveillance technology allows officers to better protect the public, there are growing concerns from privacy rights advocates who worry how the surveillance data will be kept secure and used by police.

Leading the charge on promoting transparency legislation is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which along with a coalition of privacy, civil liberty, civil rights, minority, and ethnic groups, has launched a campaign to promote legislation at the state and city level.

“The use of surveillance by local police has been spreading unchecked across the country without regard for the communities that they purport to serve,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, in a press release. “Today communities and their local elected officials are taking action to address the disparate impact, financial burden, and threats to civil rights and liberties posed by invasive surveillance technologies.”

The first wave of cities introducing legislation are:

  • Hattiesburg, Miss.
  • Madison, Wis.
  • Miami Beach, Fla.
  • Milwaukee
  • Muskegon, Mich.
  • New York
  • Palo Alto, Calif.
  • Pensacola, Fla.
  • Richmond, Va.
  • Seattle
  • Washington

“We need to maximize the active engagement and influence our local communities have over surveillance technology decision-making. This first wave of legislative efforts being taken today across the country is a critical first step to moving local surveillance out of the shadows, ensuring transparency and accountability, and protecting the civil rights of all Americans,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and its senior vice president for advocacy and policy.

The ACLU published a report that highlights the costs and potential risks associated with common surveillance technologies used by many police departments.

According to the ACLU, the legislation between introduced across the country is guided by a core set of principles:

  • Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without express city council approval.
  • Local communities should play a significant and meaningful role in determining if and how surveillance technologies are funded, acquired, or used.
  • The process for considering the use of surveillance technologies should be transparent and well-informed.
  • The use of surveillance technologies should not be approved generally; approvals, if provided, should be for specific technologies and specific, limited uses.
  • Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without addressing their potential impact on civil rights and civil liberties.
  • Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without considering their financial impact.
  • To verify legal compliance, surveillance technology use and deployment data should be reported publicly on an annual basis.
  • City council approval should be required for all surveillance technologies and uses; there should be no “grandfathering” for technologies currently in use.

To learn more about policing in the digital age, check out 21st Century State and Local’s special report.


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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs