There was a time when the Fresno City Council would have funded the purchase of the latest technology for the Police Department with little debate. Every council member understood that politically speaking it was wise to give Fresno’s popular police chief, Jerry Dyer, what he wanted to fight crime.
For myriad reasons, those days appear to be over.
Exhibit A is the City Council’s March 31 rejection on a 5-0 vote of a request to utilize software that scours online public records databases to quickly provide officers with information about addresses on 911 emergency calls.
In our estimation, it’s a valuable tool and well worth the $132,000 cost for five years of service. The Beware software gathers public records, but it does so faster than any police employee could compile them.
According to a police memo to the council, Beware’s databases “contain data on close to 100 percent of the adult population, and close to 100 percent of residential addresses.” In addition, the software collects court records daily.
“This technology is an incredible tool for law enforcement,” Dyer said at the council hearing. “It’s going to save lives. I hate to see an extremely valuable tool lost because of a lack of understanding or awareness.”
But the council and the police chief are operating in a different political era.
Community organizers are engaging more of Fresno’s 500,000-plus residents than ever before. Groups such as Faith in Community are on the front lines in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and they’re bringing people together in numbers that are difficult for politicians to ignore.
The first blow leading to the council’s thumbs down on Beware was the software’s ability to comb through individuals’ public postings to social media such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and assign color-coded threat levels based on posts that may indicate a potential danger to responding officers.
“That feature raised major concerns among pastors on the Faith in Community board, the American Civil Liberties Union and council members themselves,” The Bee’s Tim Sheehan wrote in his April 1 story, “and prompted the Fresno Police Department … to disable that feature of the software over the last few months of Fresno’s testing period for the program.”
Despite Dyer’s assurances that Fresno’s version of the software wouldn’t scan social media nor would it issue color-coded threat assessments, residents opposed to using Beware didn’t back down.
The council, however, left the door open to the software. City Manager Bruce Rudd – well aware of how Mayor Ashley Swearengin had collaborated with community groups to gain passage of a controversial general plan that focuses on urban revitalization – suggested that council members solicit public input about safeguards desired to provide oversight. The members agreed.
The lesson here for Dyer is that he needs to engage the entire community and gain consensus before implementing any change that might be controversial.
His powerful personality won’t always carry the day.