Judge Wanger: Fresno video policing done right, needs money

The Fresno BeeJanuary 7, 2014 

In an August 2013 file photo, Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer shows off a joystick controller used to operate surveillance cameras the department has in place throughout the city. Some of the camera views are seen in the background.

JOHN WALKER — THE FRESNO BEE

Fresno's video policing unit plays by the rules but almost certainly will need more money to reach its potential, a retired federal judge says in a long-anticipated report.

Former federal Judge Oliver W. Wanger's 36-page audit says police use of the latest video technology is not abusing people's civil rights.

"No violations of prohibited use were detected," Wanger said. " ... 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."

Prohibited uses include the targeting of specific citizens based solely on things such as race, the review of activities where privacy expectations exist and the taping of sensitive locations such as places of worship and medical clinics.

At the same time, Wanger notes that the unit's funding has dropped from $1 million in 2008 (much of it for new cameras) to $148,320 in 2013.

"Budget constraints represent an absolute limitation on the Video Policing Program's optimum performance," he said. "The Command Staff is commended for implementing and operating Video Policing under highly challenging circumstances."

Wanger said his audit included outreach to citizens concerned with video policing. His audit lists 13 of the respondents' concerns. They include potential invasion of privacy, a lack of internal monitoring of the video monitors and cost of video storage.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer in an email said he planned to read Wanger's report Tuesday night.

"I have no doubt the audit will be very helpful to our ongoing video policing operations," Dyer said.

The audit was prepared with the help of Joan Levie, a volunteer attorney from Fresno with significant experience in state and federal civil rights cases. Wanger and Levie worked for free and charged nothing for expenses.

City Hall has waited a long time for an outside expert's analysis of the video policing program.

Video policing was a small-scale affair in Fresno until early 2006, when police department leaders asked the council to dramatically expand the program. More cameras in key locations would be a "force multiplier" in the fight against crime, Dyer told the council.

There was push-back among some in the public and on the council. Civil rights was a key issue. This inspired city officials to authorize a video policing auditor with the power to investigate police use of the cameras.

The council insisted that the auditor be a retired federal judge well-versed in civil rights matters. Finding someone with the time and inclination to tackle a high-profile job with no firm guidelines turned into a challenge.

Wanger retired in September 2011 after more than 20 years on the federal bench in Fresno. He began private practice as an attorney, but that didn't stop city officials in 2012 from asking him to take the video policing auditor's job. He accepted.

The police department's video policing unit has 177 cameras. Police cadets monitored the cameras several years ago, but budget woes led to staff cuts. The unit now is staffed by light-duty officers and two part-time civilian volunteers, Wanger says.

The department goal is to beef up the staff so there's 24/7 monitoring.

Sometimes, Wanger says, "no coverage is possible due to lack of available personnel."

Storage is another challenge. For the most part, video is stored for about a week. The cameras then record over the old video.

"The operation of the VPU does not allow for long-term (over 30 days) retention," Wanger says. 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, he says.

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 officials.

Wanger says 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."

Video policing has 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," he says.

City officials must constantly analyze how to best balance a variety of interests, Wanger says.

He recommends funding Dyer's goal 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," Wanger says.

Wanger says the pool of potential video policing auditors should be expanded to include retired Superior Court judges. He says there aren't many retired Federal Court judges in the area.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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