Former Judge Wanger writes far-ranging audit on Fresno video policing

Posted by George Hostetter on January 7, 2014 

Former federal Judge Oliver W. Wanger has written a stunning report on the Fresno Police Department’s video policing unit (VPU).

It is detailed (36 pages), wide-ranging (history, staffing, funding) and forward-looking (policy considerations, specific recommendations).

The City Council has waited nearly a decade for such a report. It’s here.

Wanger — who was assisted in his work by volunteer attorney Joan Levie, a veteran of state and federal civil rights cases — worked for free.

I haven’t had a chance yet to thoroughly read the entire report. But so far four points points stand out:

1.) Wanger found no abuse of the system by Fresno police officers. “No violations of prohibited use were detected,” he writes. “... No recording of demonstrations or rallies was made without the presence of unlawful activity. Any recording of demonstrations, meetings, or the like was purged within 24 hours.”

2.) The city must revisit its policy for video storage. For the most part, video is stored for about a week. The cameras then record over the old stuff.

“The operation of the VPU does not allow for long term (over 30 days) retention,” Wanger writes. State law “provides that video surveillance data is to be retained for at least one year or until the case for which the evidence was gathered is concluded.”

This apparent conflict between city policy and state law should be resolved one way or another, Wanger writes.

3.) The city’s policy-makers would be wise to review its goals for video policing. Wanger makes clear that the ever-growing power of technology combined with the ever-growing complexity of a democratic society produces serious challenges for government (especially a municipal corporation that’s broke — my words, not his).

* “Additional personnel are needed to more effectively carry out the mission of VPU. Given the significant reduction in funding and resources available to the Video Policing Unit, those responsible for its operation ... are contributing service above and beyond the call of duty.”

* “The emergence of powerful video surveillance technologies to provide law enforcement with new tools to battle crime and terrorism is a reality. As criminals and terrorists gain access to new weapons and technologies, law enforcement should equally be able to take advantage of technological developments to protect the lives and safety of innocent persons. Video Policing should be designed and used not only to protect citizens against crime and terrorism, but also in ways that preserve accountability, procedural safeguards, and constitutionally protected rights of privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of association.

“Public camera systems observing public spaces have the potential to intimidate individuals who express opposition to government positions, deter speech or associations considered unpopular, or undercut traditional protections against pervasive government monitoring of citizens’ personal affairs. These competing interests have been recognized and are recognized in the Fresno Video Policing Policies. Continuing analysis of this balance of interests is necessary.”

4.) More cameras in the right hands may serve everyone — law enforcement and citizens.

Wanger writes in his section on specific recommendations: “Fund the Chief’s objective of equipping all field officers with personal surveillance cameras. This will greatly enhance the objective evidence of field officer performance and provide a record of evidentiary integrity to resolve disputes between individuals interacting with law enforcement and incidents where law enforcement conduct is called into question.”

On a closing note, Wanger asks that the pool of potential video policing auditors be expanded to include retired Superior Court judges. The current pool is limited by council edict to retired Federal Court judges.

Wanger says there aren’t all that many retired Federal Court judges in the region.

Wanger is now a practicing attorney based in Fresno.

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