Police Surveillance Can't Be Reformed. It Must Be Abolished

Groups like the ACLU are pushing a program to rein in surveillance tech. But all it does is expand and strengthen the police's surveillance powers.
Members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition hold a banner at a rally in Los Angeles.
Irfan Khan / Getty Images

Hamid Khan is the Founder and Coordinator of Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which aims to build community-based power to dismantle police surveillance, spying, and infiltration programs.

Pete White is the Founder and Executive Director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) working to ensure the human right to housing, health and security are upheld in Los Angeles.

The expanding use of surveillance technology is a fundamental component of police violence against Black communities. Across the country, police use technology ranging from drones and facial recognition to predictive analytics to keep marginalized communities under constant watch and control. 


But even after months of street protests condemning police violence, some advocates seek dangerous compromises that allow this violent institution to expand its power—promoting toothless regulations instead of dismantling and defunding policing as a whole. 

The Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) campaign—promoted by the ACLU, the nation’s largest civil liberties organization with a budget of over $300 million a year—is just this type of compromised initiative that undermines organizing efforts against police surveillance. Various forms of CCOPS laws have now been enacted in 15 cities, and the ACLU and others are promoting this reform across the country. Some are even encouraging the Biden administration to make adoption of these laws a requirement for local funding grants.  

CCOPS requires police to publicly disclose certain information and data about surveillance programs they intend to use. Of course, this means police can use these rules to selectively frame their surveillance in the terms most favorable to them. These disclosures then form the basis for public hearings to approve or disapprove the programs. 

These hearings wrongly assume that politicians and their appointees will effectively represent those most harmed by the surveillance programs. In reality, hearings like this will be stacked in favor of approval and will marginalize voices of opposition. In January, over 98 percent of respondents rejected the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)'s proposed facial recognition system during a request for public comment—but the department adopted the program anyway.


The CCOPS approach to surveillance creates structures that we will later regret. For example, last summer politicians in New York City responded to the George Floyd rebellion by passing a law that requires the New York City Police Department to publish self-audits and set self-governance policies. Last month, the NYPD published those reports, which of course announce that all their surveillance is harmless and valuable. 

Now, the very same reform groups that celebrated this law as “vital legislation” are calling it “weak” and expressing surprise that NYPD has “systematically attempted to evade the law.” Abolitionist organizers from across the country had warned this would happen.

The bottom line is that these surveillance technologies are so dangerous that they should be abolished, even if police could convince politicians and the public to support them. A large majority of white Americans approved of Jim Crow segregation, and the Patriot Act had widespread support when it was enacted after 9/11. That didn’t make those forms of oppression just.  Even if the majority of a community approves of brutal surveillance and police tactics against some residents, those practices are still unacceptable.

CCOPS takes the opposite approach, treating potentially abusive surveillance programs as acceptable—and approved for unleashing on our communities—so long as a particular bureaucratic process is followed. The CCOPS scheme aligns in this way with other policing reforms, like community “advisory” boards and “community policing” that police use to work with people and organizations who they know will compromise in their favor. These bodies represent a narrow segment of the community that benefits from or supports oppressive policing, while ignoring those most vulnerable to police abuse and surveillance.


CCOPS ignores the broadly oppressive history of police surveillance, treating it as an acceptable project that sometimes tips into excess. Police surveillance has always been an instrument of racial control. This means police “reform” is inherently anti-Black, seeking to improve an institution that is white supremacist at its core by regulating only its worst abuses. 

Reform is also crucial to how racial domination has evolved and become more durable over time. In fact, many aspects of policing that we are organizing against today were once liberal reforms. Even the use of predictive policing algorithms was long promoted by police reformers as a way to make policing more “efficient” and “fair.” But we know from the reality in Los Angeles that these tools unleashed extreme police abuse and harassment on our communities. 

There is a better way to stop the growing surveillance state: building grassroots power to systematically dismantle oppressive institutions. Unlike the pro-police heritage of reforms like CCOPS, this strategy puts power in the hands of the people. Our organizations, the Los Angeles Community Action Network and Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, have long taken this approach. Over the years, we forced LAPD to dismantle its two first-generation predictive policing programs, and we have built a culture of resistance to academic, nonprofit, and industrial complicity in police surveillance.  

Unfortunately, reform organizations like the ACLU are often on the wrong side of this struggle. For example, in 2015 the ACLU office in Los Angeles worked in conjunction with LAPD

to draft a prototype of the CCOPS ordinances that the organization is now trying to push nationally. ACLU lawyers did this without consulting communities and people harmed by surveillance or organizations in those communities working to build power.

Proponents of CCOPS say that completely opposing surveillance structures is not politically expedient, at least compared to passing oversight and transparency laws. But it is always easy to win political success supporting initiatives that do not challenge police power. This kind of “success” harms the community by diverting attention from fighting for meaningful change and helping entrench the structures we seek to dismantle.

More and more people are recognizing the grave violence that policing inflicts on Black, Brown, and poor communities, as well as understanding that policing and surveillance will not bring us safety. Simply reforming policing has never worked and will never work. We should reject reforms like CCOPS and focus on the hard work of dismantling the police and surveillance state.