California police are refusing to release documents about the surveillance technology it uses, despite a new law that requires their release.
On January 1, SB 978 went into effect, which requires the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) to "conspicuously" publish all law enforcement agency training materials. The agency has said that it will not comply on copyright grounds.
Any attempt to download training materials concerning facial recognition technology or automated license plate readers (ALPRs), as well as materials relating to courses on the use of force, lead to a Word document that reads "The course presented has claimed copyright for the expanded course online."
This is not the first time California has blocked access to records made public by transparency laws. When SB 241—a landmark transparency law that made decades of police internal affairs public—went into effect last year, law enforcement organizations responded by ignoring court orders to hand over documents, charging high fees to access them, and in some cases burning or shredding them. Police unions have been especially vocal in the fight against transparency,
On Thursday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sent a letter to the POST outlining why this copyright claim was unlawful and unacceptable, pointing out that the California Public Records Act (CPRA) allows copyrighted material to be made available to the public.
“The public has the right to know how peace officers are trained—and for good reason. Officers’ use of force causes bodily harm and, in some cases, death,” the letter reads. “ALPR and facial recognition technology amass vast amounts of data about California residents. Both technologies have triggered legislative action on the state and local level, and it is important for the public to examine whether the training reflects new and evolving law.”
In 2020, an auditor raised several concerns about the use of ALPRs by multiple agencies that included "fundamental problems with police ALPR policies, failure to conduct audits, and the risk of ALPR data being abused to surveil political rallies or target immigrant populations." Facial recognition technology has been widely condemned by experts as racist, so much so that employees at major technology companies like Google are demanding their employer no longer sell the technology to police departments.
The growing push to combine policing with technology has only led to a flood of negative outcomes, namely more police bias and more overreach resulting in more, not less, police violence. Laws like SB 978 and SB 241 are important laws that will make it easier to rein in the police, but still they suffer the fate of every other policing reform over the past one hundred years. The organized (and effective) resistance to these transparency reforms by law enforcement agencies is just another reminder that defunding and abolishing the police, not reforming them, is how we’ll eliminate the violence and corruption they perpetuate—and visit upon the rest of society.