North Charleston: No mass surveillance, no Joint Operations Center

North Charleston City Council and Mayor Keith Summey

A flyer reading "Tell North Charleston City Council: No Mass Surveillance. #blocktheJOC 1. Sign & share the petition 2. Contact the councilmembers 3. Pack the June 9 council meeting

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The city of North Charleston is planning to create a 24/7 real-time surveillance center that will monitor, in its own words, "every inch" of the city. The plan for the so-called "Joint Operations Center," or JOC, will include the purchase of 745 surveillance cameras, 34 automatic license plate readers, a data dashboard for compiling surveillance feeds from privately and publicly owned cameras, and walls of video monitors with cops watching them all day, every day. It's been estimated to cost $2.5 million up front, with untold expenses down the road. (See Finance Committee documents here.)

By signing this petition, we send a message that this expensive and unwarranted increase in domestic surveillance would be not only unhelpful but would actively harm our community. Here are some relevant case studies and links to share with your city council members. (See city council contact information here.)

Racial Bias Assessment of the North Charleston, South Carolina, Police Department (CNA, November 2021)

"Surveillance Compounded: Real-Time Crime Centers in the U.S." (Electronic Frontier Foundation, November 2020)

"The Disparate Impact of Surveillance" (The Century Foundation, December 2017)

"You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans' Movements" (ACLU, July 2013)

"Police Are Telling ShotSpotter to Alter Evidence From Gunshot-Detecting AI" (Vice, July 2021)

"How police surveillance technologies act as tools of white supremacy" (The Conversation, January 2020)

"The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods" (The Atlantic, December 2017)

"Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On Our Nation's Highways" (ACLU, June 1999)

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To: North Charleston City Council and Mayor Keith Summey
From: [Your Name]

We oppose the City of North Charleston’s plans for domestic surveillance via a proposed “Joint Operations Center.”

We do not want 700+ surveillance cameras installed across our city, and we oppose the expanded use of facial recognition technology, license plate readers, and ShotSpotter devices. We oppose Mayor Keith Summey in his call for police to conduct “broken tail light” stops as an excuse to search our vehicles. Consider the following facts:

* Police have provided the public with no information to date about surveillance footage retention, privacy protections, cybersecurity plans for the storage of that footage, the ongoing costs of maintaining and replacing surveillance devices, the availability of surveillance data to criminal defendants, or policies surrounding the sharing of data with other agencies and private data clearinghouses. These are matters of public policy, and you as City Council members are abdicating your duty if you leave them up to unelected police officers.

* Police surveillance networks in the United States have consistently been used to track, harass, profile, and repress Black and Hispanic communities, Muslim communities, low-income communities, and political activists. Handing more powerful surveillance tools to police has only exacerbated those patterns.

* Particularly in North Charleston, the city and police have resisted all efforts to hold the department accountable via a public oversight board. The city has not addressed the grievous failures identified in the Racial Bias Audit completed in November 2021. Quoting from page 8 of the summary: “Community members expressed that NCPD officers seem to overly police certain areas, particularly neighborhoods with many residents living under the poverty level or residents of color. Listening session attendees reported feeling as though NCPD officers pulled them over every time they drove through their neighborhood, and that officers were profiling residents and regularly looking for minor infractions to justify traffic stops.”

* Automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) have been shown to collect millions of records, primarily tracking the movements of drivers who committed no crimes. The American Civil Liberties Union has described ALPRs as "a technology deployed with too few rules that is becoming a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance."

* At the Finance Committee meeting on April 21, a North Charleston Police officer told councilmembers that police had met with representatives of ShotSpotter, a company that sells devices that purportedly detect and report the sound of gunshots. These devices are notoriously inaccurate and often report false positives triggered by fireworks, and police departments in other cities including Chicago have been caught manipulating their data.

* As was grimly illustrated by the police murder of Walter Scott in 2015, the practice of pretextual traffic stops is racist and capricious and can be lethal for members of racial minorities in the U.S.

We know from experience, community input, and a mountain of data that these technologies and techniques only lead to racial profiling and overpolicing of Black, Hispanic, and low-income people. We ask that you reverse course on these plans and find better ways to build trust with the community you serve.

We demand that you remove funding for the Joint Operations Center from the 2022-23 municipal budget and reject any further proposals for the expansion of surveillance in North Charleston.