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BART riders, board members push back against surveillance proposal

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BART board members debated increased security measures Thursday including software that could analyze surveillance footage for possible threats. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner

The BART board rejected plans to introduce “smart software” to its video surveillance system at its regular meeting Thursday — at least, temporarily.

Altogether about half of the $28 million in safety measures proposed by BART staff were shot down by the board, who said the ideas were half-baked, lacking specifics about funding sources and rules to guard against misuse of data. Those proposals are expected to return in a more detailed form.

However, directors did approve tasking staff to plan the conversion of analog surveillance cameras to new digital video cameras, which will allow BART to more easily collect and analyze surveillance footage after criminal and other incidents. This plan will need another approval by the board to move forward once staff completes a more detailed plan.

The board also approved installation of emergency call boxes on station platforms.

Other proposals that were rejected but may return include adding additional fare inspectors, a “no panhandling” ordinance, and efforts to build taller station gates to prevent non-paying riders from hopping over them.

Though those proposals failed Thursday, BART directors said they would consider upgrades to surveillance systems in the future should they be proposed again with more specifics and a privacy protection policy in place.

“I do think a lot of these proposals are flawed,” said Rebecca Saltzman, a BART board director representing Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

“I’ve never seen (a BART proposal) before with so little fiscal information,” she added. “On the panhandling ordinance, we clearly can’t vote on this today because we have no ordinance in front of us.”

BART staff asked the board to approve the development of a suite of 7 plans aimed at boosting rider safety, with the understanding that the BART board would need to give final approval at a later date. The rejected proposals include converting the system’s 4,500 analog cameras to digital cameras to the tune of $15 million, “smart” software to analyze the movement of riders to detect threats and alert authorities for $4 million, video screens for BART stations showing real-time surveillance video to riders, a “no panhandling” ordinance in paid areas, and accelerating “system hardening efforts” which would see higher gates installed to bar gate-hoppers.

A number of other proposals were presented to the board that BART General Manager Grace Crunican could implement on her own without board authority, including “emergency” BART Police Department staffing to increase police visibility, deploying specially-trained BART staffers who wear neon vests to help riders in response to “significant events,” increased use of the BART Watch app to allow riders to report incidents and a rider safety education campaign.

However public comment largely focused on BART surveillance camera upgrades with smart software that is aimed at detecting threats to passengers.

SEE RELATED: BART plans to expand surveillance after Nia Wilson killing raise privacy concerns

At the meeting, the train-riding public lambasted BART police and the threat of surveillance-state culture. Many argued that artificially intelligent video cameras have and would continue to target black and brown people, and that video data collected by BART would be used — with or without their permission — by federal agencies to target undocumented people and innocent citizens. Others said BART was reacting rashly and without thought to “bad headlines” in the wake of the prominent death of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old who was stabbed at MacArthur BART station in July.

Police used surveillance footage to identify 27-year-old John Lee Cowell, a transient man from Concord, who was later arrested and charged with murder.

“I’m really concerned an attack by a white supremacist on a black woman” will be used to support proposals that would “hurt other black women,” said Nabil Arnaoot, a BART rider, during public comment.

SEE RELATED: Suspect arrested in deadly BART stabbing of teenager and sister

“Oscar Grant wasn’t that long ago,” said BART rider Darrell Owens, referencing an infamous incident where BART police shot and killed a man who they had restrained on New Year’s Eve in 2009. Owens said he opposed increasing the amount of fare inspectors because, “It’s just going to lead to hostile encounters, and it’s been done.”

The American Civil Liberties Union in coalition with the Anti Police-Terror Project and Center for Media Justice opposed the surveillance measures. They and other social justice and electronic-privacy groups asked the BART board to postpone its decision until privacy measures were in place.

“The answer is not a rushed surveillance proposal,” said Mike Chase, a member of the ACLU Northern California’s Board of Directors. He added, “we don’t know who these cameras will be pointed at, who will be tracked, and how the agency will respond if (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) asks for assistance” in tracking undocumented immigrant passengers.

Crunican expressed frustration that BART board directors have continuously pushed back on plans to implement safety upgrades citing a need for a surveillance policy to protect riders, because crafting that policy has dragged on for nearly two years.

“We’re not going to do a damn thing on those until the BART board decides to pick them up,” she said, heatedly.

Though nearly every member of the riding public speaking Thursday voiced opposition to the surveillance and police expansion, some BART directors representing suburban Bay Area counties characterized the complaints as those from the “urban core,” and not representative of the entire riding community. Indeed, one member of the public who remained silent held aloft signs reading “more police = rider safety.”

“I think we’ve only heard half the story here today,” said BART director Joel Keller, who represents Contra Costa county. He said he has heard from riders in his county who are afraid to ride BART in the wake of recent violence. “They are scared to use the trains, they fear for their safety.”

In a statement, Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council, chastised the BART board.

“It’s hard to believe in the face of growing public fear and anxiety about safety on BART that the board wouldn’t act swiftly and aggressively to adopt the full slate of strong measures for restoring confidence in the system,” Wunderman wrote.

Voicing a need to hear from “other” communities, Keller asked for a subsequent BART meeting to take place in the evening in Contra Costa county so suburban riders who work during the day could attend. Thursday’s meeting took place in Oakland by the 19th Street Oakland BART Station, at 9 a.m.

Lateefah Simon, a BART board director who represents San Francisco, among other counties, said she had heard similar concerns from women riders who called BART a frightening “no-man’s land” at night. Still, she said, that’s no reason to curtail civil liberties while also bolstering rider safety.

To choose between them, she said, “is a false choice.”

While many members of the public spoke against increased surveillance measures at a BART board meeting Thursday, some residents called for stepped up security measures. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

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