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Cleveland Promised Oversight of Police Surveillance. The Work Hasn’t Been Done.

In 2022, Mayor Bibb pledged to form a panel to address concerns over cameras and high-tech tools. It’s finally set to happen.

Cameras around Cleveland. City officials have not shared the exact locations of its surveillance cameras and how they’re used, despite Mayor Justin Bibb's pledge to create a technology advisory committee in Sept. 2022.

As Cleveland spends millions on new license plate readers and surveillance cameras, some residents fear that police officers will soon be able to track their movements.

Activists say police could feed the camera images into facial recognition software to identify people on the street or near crime scenes, leading to discriminatory policing practices, especially in communities of color.

The concerns are amplified after Mayor Justin Bibb’s stalled efforts in creating a technology advisory committee to address privacy and civil rights concerns over how police use the powerful surveillance tools.

Bibb’s pledge to form the committee from City Hall employees came after The Marshall Project - Cleveland reported in September 2022 that the city lagged behind others in sharing policies and details when police deploy powerful digital tools.

A photograph of a sign mounted on a pole in a residential area. The sign shows an illustration of a video camera and the Cleveland Police logo, and reads “Notice: This area under video surveillance.”
A photograph of two children riding bikes past surveillance cameras mounted near a recreation center.
A photograph of a surveillance camera mounted on a recreation center with tan brick and a painted mural on the side.

A sign marks the presence of Cleveland police surveillance cameras at the intersection of Detroit Avenue and West 89th Street in Cleveland.

Cameras mounted around the Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland. Officials have said many of its surveillance cameras are near recreation centers and main corridors.

Cameras mounted around the Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland. Officials have said many of its surveillance cameras are near recreation centers and main corridors.

Kareem Henton, a leader of Black Lives Matter Cleveland, said the city can’t be trusted to operate the cameras and other electronic tools without citizen oversight.

“We know they’re not truthful,” Henton said. “Look at their past. It’s all intentional. They get these tools and will soon sneak in other ways to use them.”

Cleveland police have faced numerous civil rights lawsuits and paid out millions to settle excessive force claims since 2010.

Sarah Johnson, the mayor’s spokesperson, said the committee is designed to increase transparency and foster dialogue about technology being used by Cleveland police. The committee’s work will not be limited to camera deployment, she added.

A meeting is now scheduled for March 25.

“Public Safety is our number one priority and we want to collaborate with the citizens, as we all want the same outcome, a safer city,” Johnson wrote in an email. “There are a lot of technological advancements that will enhance our ability to better serve the residents. We want to move forward with transparency.”

Since early 2023, The Marshall Project - Cleveland has repeatedly asked the Bibb administration for committee updates. Leaders reiterated that planning was ongoing — but it wasn’t, records show.

In fact, no movement occurred until early February of this year, a week after The Marshall Project - Cleveland again asked about Bibb’s 15-month-old promise.

A photograph of four surveillance cameras mounted on a wooden pole.

Four surveillance cameras are at the intersection of West Boulevard and West 101st Street in Cleveland.

On Feb. 6, Jakimah Dye, Cleveland's assistant safety director, sent emails seeking volunteers for a closed-door committee to meet March 25 to “increase communication, transparency and to provide updates on technology utilized by” police, records show.

Emails went to members of the Police Department, Public Safety, Information Technology and the Police Accountability Team, records show.

Among other duties, the committee’s focus is to review technologies already in place, the technology’s purpose, vendor contracts and whether using the tools violates constitutional protections, records show.

Dye could not provide any details about the Technology Advisory Committee when questioned during the council’s Safety Committee Feb. 7 meeting by Councilman Mike Polensek, who chairs the Committee.

Polensek told Dye he would like the technology committee to appear before the Safety Committee to discuss its work.

The following week, The Marshall Project - Cleveland asked then-Safety Director Karrie Howard why his top aide could not provide details on the Technology Advisory Committee.

Howard acknowledged he had no public records, aside from the emails, that show he did any work toward forming the committee during the past 15 months. But he stressed the committee idea remained at the forefront of his office goals.

“I had it written on my whiteboard,” Howard said. “That is where I do my best thinking.”

He also said the committee would not meet in public but would instead issue a report after a quarterly meeting. When asked how taxpayers could rely on the accuracy of the reports compiled from those closed-door meetings, Howard said: “You’ll have to trust us.”

A photograph of a Black man wearing glasses and a suit speaks into news microphones attached to a podium.

At a September 2022 news conference, Mayor Justin Bibb discussed steps the city has taken to improve policing in the city.

Weeks later, Howard abruptly resigned.

The committee will consist of 10 people from the city’s departments of Information Technology, Police, Public Safety, the Police Accountability Team and the Community Police Commission.

“The Technology Advisory Committee is one of many investments by the Department of Public Safety and the City of Cleveland to provide the most advanced and effective policing to our citizens, maintaining a collaborative spirit in the heart of everything we do,” according to a statement from Bibb’s spokeswoman.

Many other cities that fell under federal consent decree agreements to reform their troubled departments have become more transparent over the deployment of cameras and other technology.

The police often explain to citizen oversight panels details such as whether any data will be collected and for how long it will be kept. The police also have to detail any potential infringements on people’s privacy and civil rights, and what safeguards are in place to guard against misuse.

The consent decree reached between the Cleveland Division of Police and the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 created a blueprint designed to repair community relationships and reduce excessive force complaints, which have plagued the division and largely triggered the federal intervention.

Created under the consent decree, the Cleveland Community Police Commission consists of citizen members who gather community feedback and review police policies and training related to transparency, bias and how police interact with the residents.

The commission can also override police discipline decisions made by the safety director and police chief. The independent body of 13 members draws its budget from the city’s General Fund.

The Cleveland Community Police Commission urged Bibb in May 2022 to form a technology committee.

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The Bibb administration needs to act quickly to form the technology committee to prevent potential abuses, said Jason Goodrick, interim executive director of the Cleveland Community Police Commission.

“The only way to identify misuse is by a committee,” Goodrick told The Marshall Project - Cleveland. “The police commission is taking this seriously. It’s politics above good policy at City Hall.”

The intersection of West Superior and Detroit avenues in Cleveland. The City of Cleveland installed at least 100 Flock license plate reader cameras at high-traffic intersections, but has declined to reveal the precise locations.

Since Bibb announced his pledge to create the technology committee, the city has spent millions more on new high-tech tools.

On Aug. 8, the city installed its first Flock License Plate Reader Camera. Within two months, 100 of them were installed across the city at high-traffic intersections, records show. The total cost is $250,000.

The license plate readers take still photos of passing vehicles to scan their plates. Each scan is logged and cross-checked with a database to see if police are searching for the vehicle.

If an officer issues an alert for a license plate for things such as a stolen car or an Amber Alert for missing children, the system will signal the officer.

The city created a policy governing the use of the readers. In a statement, Sgt. Wilfredo Diaz, a police spokesperson, declined to reveal the camera locations.

As of Feb. 15, the city has deployed 125 in-car dash cameras with license-plate readers. Another 175 cameras will be deployed later. Each camera costs nearly $6,300, totaling nearly $1.9 million.

The in-car dash cameras have been installed, but they will not go live until a final policy is completed, Diaz said in a statement.

The city plans to have the Community Police Commission, the Department of Justice and federal monitors review the policy before the tools are activated, the statement said.

Police Chief Wayne Drummond told the City Council’s Safety Committee on Feb. 7 that police are taking steps to prevent any privacy abuses with the 100 Flock cameras by limiting access to a small number of officials.

He called the Flock cameras an “invaluable tool” that helped solve 12 homicides since they came online last year.

Cleveland leaders say they want to avoid lawsuits over the technology filed by residents in other cities.

“The privacy standpoint is really important to understand,” Drummond, who is now the interim safety director, told the Safety Committee.

“We’re not looking at individuals. We’re looking at vehicles. We’re not targeting anyone.”

Mark Puente Twitter Email is a staff writer leading investigative reporting efforts for The Marshall Project - Cleveland. Puente, a former truck driver, has nearly 20 years in journalism and a proven track record in accountability reporting. He has worked for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The Baltimore Sun, the Tampa Bay Times and the Los Angeles Times. Puente is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.