Council recap: No deal on license plate readers: Decisions on surveillance, Statesman PUD and parkland dedication fees all postponed – News


The city council decided on September 1 to postpone a vote on approval again Austin Police Department to resume use automatic license plate reader Program. The department already owns 20 ALPR cameras and has previously signed contracts Vigilant solutions to manage the software side – primarily the database of license plate images captured by ALPR cameras that officers query when they suspect a vehicle is linked to a criminal investigation. APD describes the technology as a “force multiplier” to speed up criminal investigations in the face of staff shortages, but privacy advocates describe it as enabling mass government surveillance. The latter position gained in 2020 when the vigilant contract expired and judiciary lawyers looked for jobs to cut the APD budget. (The dollars, but not the actual programs, were credited back to APD the following year.)

A coalition of justice and privacy advocates have pressured the council to vote against reintroducing the scheme. One concern is the harm that could happen to someone wrongly linked to a crime as a result of the technology being misused. In May 2020, APD officers stopped a woman after her license plate readers indicated the car was stolen, pointed guns at her, and then learned the license plate match was the result of incorrect data entry, according to one at the Office of Police Supervision. Their frustration was summed up, according to the OPO complaint: “If a minor clerical error puts citizens at risk of being shot by cops, that’s problematic.” (The officers involved in the incident were not disciplined.) APD found no violation of department policy . “The ALPR return is only as accurate as the available data,” said an APD spokesman

Aside from cases where ALPR errors can endanger lives, proponents point to the comprehensive location tracking that ALPR cameras enable. The city’s database of license plates will be accessible to APD and, upon request, to any of the dozens of other law enforcement agencies that cooperate in sharing data with APD through Notorious Austin Regional Intelligence Center. It’s part of a network of state/federal “fusion centers” across the country that was hacked three years ago in a celebrated piece of activist espionage BlueLeaks, which illustrate the risk faced by such large, juicy datasets. Millions of drivers in the UK saw their journey data being captured by number plate readers two years ago and then leaked by hackers.

“If a small typo puts citizens at risk of being shot by police officers, that’s problematic.” – Reporting to the Police Inspectorate

The risk decreases if the license plate image data is not retained for long, which is being discussed in Austin. A decision by a council member Mackenzie Kelly sets a retention period of 30 days, the APD Chief Joseph Chacon supports. An APD spokesman said ALPRs have helped investigate violent crimes but could not say exactly how many investigations there were. But CM Chito Velaa criminal defense and immigration lawyer by trade, proposed an amendment that would reduce the retention period to three minutes — just long enough to run against the hotlists that APD must look for matches and then delete.

That too is worrying for lawyers, like Alicia Torres With leadership at the base explained. When Grassroots learned that ARIC was sharing data with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it asked APD what information ICE provided to show the “terrorist or criminal nexus” needed to justify the request. “The biggest problem for us is that ICE has so little oversight and APD has been willing to share information with them,” Torres said. “If ICE knows someone they’re looking for is in Austin, they can just say they charge re-entry fees and are under Senate Bill 4 [which requires local law enforcement cooperate with ICE investigations]APD would have to comply.” The APD spokesman explained that ICE must provide a case number, criminal context, and the specific federal criminal code the agency is investigating.

Advocates also worry about how the Texas legislature could weaponize surveillance technologies like ALPRs in the future. Subject to applicable law, APD may, but is not obligated to, provide ALPR Data to other law enforcement agencies automatically or upon request. However, state legislatures could pass new legislation that would prohibit cities from restricting access to such information. The ALPR vote will be back on the agenda of the meeting next Thursday, September 15th.

The council also voted unanimously to accept a new meet-and-confer agreement between the City of Austin and the Austin EMS Association. The new contract provides for pay increases for EMS workers of between 4% and 11%, including an increase in starting pay for paramedics to $22 per hour and starting pay for the senior paramedic position to $30 per hour.

The department can now also hire the paramedic position directly, a victory for the city, because the paramedic position currently has the most vacancies of all positions at EMS. Being able to hire qualified applicants from other agencies or fields should help to fill these positions faster. But that’s not what the union wanted – it would prefer a higher base wage for EMTs, the entry-level position in the emergency services, to attract more recruits to the department who could be trained in-house before being promoted to paramedic. The contract was approved for just one year instead of the usual four-year term, so city and AEMSA leadership will return to the negotiating table next year to work out a longer-term contract.

“The biggest problem for us is that there is so little oversight of ICE and APD has been willing to share information with them.” – Alicia Torres of Grassroots Leadership

Two notable items on the September 1 agenda were again postponed. First, approval of the updated Fees for the dedication of parkland, which require developers to pay the city a set amount based on the size of their developments. The city can then use this funding pool to pay for publicly accessible green spaces. Also postponed was a second vote on the 305 S. Congress Rezoning case, commonly referred to as the statesman planned unit development (PUD).

Builders argue that the various fees the city is charging are already exorbitant and a barrier to more affordable development. A report commissioned by the Austin Board of Realtors and the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin (HBAGA) and conducted by Texas A&M University’s Texas Real Estate Research Center found that to be the case. Some on the council want to keep the parkland fee constant for a year to further investigate the issue. Others on the panel believe that the fee should be increased so that parkland development in the city does not lag behind residential and commercial development.

discussion about the statesman PUD has focused on how much affordable housing the development should include — and whether it should be on-site, or whether fees should instead be charged to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city on less expensive land — and what the Proposed water park along Lady’s This is what Bird Lake should look like. Both items were postponed to the September 15 meeting. Next week there will be another agenda with over 100 items.

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