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.

“There’s a sense of betrayal from our city council and mayor right now because they just forgave the police like it was nothing.”

Sophia Rodriguez, graduate student worker

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.

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