OAKLAND -- Council members voted early Wednesday to press forward with constructing a police-monitored surveillance center and banning numerous items, such as hammers, that could be used as weapons at demonstrations despite vocal opposition from the ACLU and dozens of residents.
Both proposals were tweaked in an attempt to address civil liberty concerns, but the amendments failed to mollify opponents who at times shouted down council members and repeatedly cried "shame" when the council unanimously voted to accept $2 million in federal grants for the surveillance center shortly after midnight.
The facility, known as the Domain Awareness Center, is a joint city and Port of Oakland data hub that will consolidate hundreds of camera feeds and surveillance tools across the city.
In a bid to ease concerns about the program, council members required that footage not be recorded or stored at the center until privacy safeguards are adopted next spring. Additionally, the surveillance feeds only will be from city and port cameras. Additional footage from schools, the Oakland Coliseum complex or outside agencies such as Caltrans would not be streamed unless approved by the council.
ACLU attorney Linda Lye said the amendments were an improvement, but warned that the center, scheduled to open next June, would be nearly finished by the time safeguards are discussed giving residents very little leverage to push for robust privacy protections."It's still putting the cart before the horse," she said.
Council members said the city risked losing the federal funds if they delayed allocation. The center will combine mapping systems and gunfire sensors with hundreds of surveillance feeds from cameras along city streets and port property, some of which currently are not automatically accessible to police and firefighters.
Several other cities including Chicago, Memphis and Houston have developed similar intelligence hubs, often with federal anti-terrorism funds.
Consolidating the camera feeds in one center with numerous television screens aids emergency response efforts and could help police identify criminals. But opponents warned that stockpiling and centralizing so much intelligence gives authorities newfound surveillance power that could be abused.
"The Domain Awareness Center is the guard tower which will watch over every person in the city of Oakland," Oakland resident Mark Raymond said. "This program is an attempt to criminalize everybody who lives in Oakland and passes through Oakland."
Council members said they had done their best to strike a delicate balance. "We've done everything we can to safeguard privacy ... without in any way jeopardizing the effectiveness of this tool," Councilwoman Libby Schaaf said.
In another hot-button issue, the council voted 5-0 in support of a law that will make it a misdemeanor to bring hammers, wrenches, firecrackers and several other items to demonstrations. The proposal, which council members abandoned last year after rowdy opposition from Occupy Oakland supporters, became a top priority again this month after a vandal hit a restaurant worker in the face with a hammer during a protest that became violent.
Councilman Dan Kalb abstained over concerns that nonviolent protesters could be arrested for something as minor as carrying a protest sign attached to a post that didn't meet specifications. "There is something seriously wrong with that," he said.
Councilwoman Desley Brooks didn't vote because she was away on a city-approved trip and Councilman Larry Reid left the nearly 8-hour meeting early. The council must approve the plan a second time when it reconvenes in September before it becomes law.
The proposal, which was drafted last year after Occupy Oakland protests turned violent, is geared toward helping police weed out armed agitators from groups of protesters before demonstrations get out of control.
Councilman Noel Gallo revived it earlier this month in response to the hammer attack and the vandalism of several downtown businesses during protests following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
"I wish I wouldn't have to do this," Gallo said. "But we just have to enforce the law."
The proposal, which was amended to make clear that tripods, cameras and pencils weren't on the banned weapons list, did not elicit last year's level of fervent opposition when the crowd got so out of control that a council committee adjourned before taking a vote.
There were fewer opponents this time around and nearly all them had gone home before the council voted at 1:20 a.m.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.