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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Border Town Confronts the Reality of Police Surveillance

In 2019, the border town of Chula Vista, about 15 minutes from Tijuana, became California’s first “Welcoming City,” highlighting the city’s financial and educational opportunities for immigrants. It’s also one of the nation’s most surveilled cities, where the police department uses license plate readers, drones, and body cameras to track residents and has explored facial-recognition technology.

Now, those distinctions are clashing, as residents and activists accuse city leaders of “betraying” immigrant residents by permitting federal immigration authorities to access data from license plate readers. That’s sparked a citywide movement questioning the city’s police department, its surveillance apparatus, and its relationship with residents and immigration enforcement.

Since 2015, the Chula Vista Police Department has quietly amassed surveillance tools as part of a smart city approach to policing. The city has outfitted officers with body cameras, briefly tested Clearview AI’s facial-recognition software in 2019, and the same year, began a partnership with Amazon Ring, the video doorbell device that lets homeowners share footage with police. Last summer, Chula Vista police started using drones, becoming the first city in the country to join a partnership between body camera maker Axon and drone maker Skydio. The department was granted unprecedented waivers permitting police to fly drones beyond the line of sight of the officer controlling them, and across the whole city.

These programs stirred little objection until December reports that police had shared license plate data with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement without approval from the mayor or city council. The city has four automated license plate reader (ALPR) cameras mounted to police patrol cars, which track and time-stamp the location of vehicles; the information is sent to a database maintained by the vendor, Vigilant Solutions.

Chula Vista police have been using ALPR cameras since 2007. But when the city contracted with Vigilant in 2017, ICE gained access to the city’s database of stored license plate images. Agencies that contract with Vigilant can opt to share their data with other law enforcement agencies who, in turn, offer access to their own ALPR data. When news of the ICE access broke last December, more than 800 agencies had access to Chula Vista’s ALPR database. The ACLU estimates about 60 percent of US adults live in cities where local law enforcement uses license plate readers. Vigilant Solutions didn’t respond to requests for comment.


Chula Vista revoked ICE’s access in December, but, to the frustration of many activists, both the mayor and city council still support the ALPR program. On April 20, the city council unanimously voted to continue using the cameras and purchase two more cameras.

“There’s a sense of betrayal from our city council and mayor right now because they just forgave the police like it was nothing,” said Sophia Rodriguez, a resident and graduate student worker, of the data sharing. Rodriguez spoke out against expanding the ALPR system at the April 20 city council meeting. “It could have been a great opportunity for showing accountability.

Ahead of the council vote, Mayor Mary Salas and police chief Roxana Kennedy defended the license plate readers as helpful to protect residents, regardless of immigration status. They said the city could protect against abuses by denying access to immigration agencies and conducting regular audits.

Kennedy said the pandemic has triggered an alarming spike in violent crime, meaning police need every tool available. In a report issued in March, police said the cameras have been used to investigate crimes ranging from gang violence to human trafficking and never shared “private information.” “Now is not the time to take away tools that have been proven effective,” she said.

This didn’t impress critics, including at least one member of the commission created to ensure Chula Vista keeps its promises to immigrants.

Ricardo Medina is a member of the Human Relations Commission that advises the city on maintaining its Welcoming City status. He urged the council to suspend the ALPR program, because police had not yet done enough research on potential impacts or heard from the community. “My thinking is, let's press pause right now,” he told WIRED.

The council approved a measure that asks the Human Relations Commission to review the license plate program quarterly. Medina said the commission is already overloaded, and he suggested creating an independent oversight body to conduct the audits and serve as a liaison between residents and the police.

He said an independent group could better track whether police are targeting certain neighborhoods with the cameras, assess whether the cameras have been effective in reducing crime, and hold city officials accountable. “How do we know that ALPR is not being used in a specific community, as a hyper-policing of specific communities and spaces?” he asked.

Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s US/Mexico Border Program, questioned how police define “personal data.” He said a California law forbids law enforcement from sharing personal information with immigration agencies like ICE. But when Rios sent a letter to police arguing against sharing this data, police said the ALPR data is not “personally identifiable.”

“They basically absolved themselves,” Rios says.


According to the 2021 budget, the CVPD is the highest-funded department in the city, as is true in many cities across the country.

“The Chula Vista Police Department always welcomes any community engagement, be it critical or supportive, and those are not mutually exclusive,” Captain Eric Thunberg, the department’s public information officer told WIRED. “We believe we do a good job, but we are always looking to be better and provide fair, courteous, and compassionate service to our community.”

In an emailed statement, the city manager’s office emphasized that the council’s decision was unanimous and included new safeguards, including regular audits and a policy review. “These efforts are intended to balance community concerns regarding privacy and the need for this important public safety tool,” the email read.

The city has also requested an independent audit from the California Department of Justice and will stop sharing data with any federal agency or police departments outside California.

The outcry against the ALPR system, amid the nationwide discussion on policing and immigration, has prompted some residents to consider the city’s suite of surveillance tools, a notable shift after years of quiet acceptance.

During the council meeting, residents also raised concerns about the city’s drone program. Several noted that drones are often used for non-emergencies, such as minor traffic jams or people without housing sleeping on a bench or sidewalk. The city’s most expensive drones (two new DJI Matrice 210 V2 Drones) cost $35,000 each and require officers to be trained to fly them. The police say they have used drones to respond to 1,300 calls for service so far this year. Similar to the ALPR, they don’t have a local oversight body. Police make public the location of drone flights, but, as with the license plate readers, Medina and others mention concerns of equity.

Kennedy said that drones can be sent ahead of officers to determine if a police response is even necessary, noting that, in almost 300 cases, police ultimately chose not to send an officer.

Almost 1,600 state and local public safety agencies had acquired drones as of March 2020, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone. Chula Vista is the first city in the nation given special FAA approval to use police drones in 100 percent of the city. Other cities may seek to follow.

In emails obtained by Forbes, Skydio’s head of public integration, William Reber, a former Chula Vista police officer, told the city’s former police chief that one goal of the city’s specialized drone approval is “to get a format that gets approved that other agencies can replicate.”

Both the city’s drone and ALPR systems continue, with some indication they may appear in other cities as well. While the city has promised to more fairly implement its surveillance tools, its little relief for residents who feel like the resources would be better directed elsewhere.

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