Surveillance cameras in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

In February, a controversial practice by the San Francisco Police Department was exposed when District Attorney Chesa Boudin revealed that police ran a sexual assault survivor’s DNA profile through a database used to identify criminal suspects. Police took the woman’s DNA in 2016 after she was raped. Five years later, SFPD used the DNA to identify her in a completely unrelated felony property crime case and press charges against her.

The incident caused a national outcry. Survivor’s advocates, lawmakers, and some police and prosecutors immediately condemned the practice, noting that it could dissuade victims from reporting crimes or cooperating with law enforcement. SFPD ended the practice, but the revelation raised questions about whether other law enforcement agencies were doing the same.

At Thursday night’s Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission meeting, Oakland Police Department officials assured that they have never run sexual assault victim’s DNA to identify them as criminal suspects in unrelated cases.

“What I can tell you is it doesn’t happen in the OPD crime laboratory,” Sandra Sachs, the Oakland Police Department’s laboratory manager told the commission.

But there isn’t a policy against OPD doing so. Brian Hofer, chair of the privacy commission, said he wants to see some kind of rule to make sure that it never happens in Oakland.

“We have no evidence OPD has done anything inappropriate here,” said Hofer. “What we’re intending to do is closing a loophole.”

The privacy commission has set up an ad hoc committee to look at OPD’s existing practices around the use of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases with an eye to establishing hard and fast rules around how survivor’s DNA can be used.

Proposals for traffic-speed and crime-surveillance cameras in East Oakland are under review

A bill currently before the state legislature would permit Oakland and a handful of other cities to install speed cameras on major roadways where there are a lot of traffic injuries. These radar-equipped cameras would catch people driving above the speed limit, take a photo or video of them, and issue fines between $50 and $500. The program would be similar to red light cameras, which Oakland once had.

Oakland’s city administration has already thrown its support behind the bill along with Los Angeles, San Jose, and the Vision Zero Network, a traffic safety advocacy group.

But it’s not clear the privacy commission will go along and recommend the program to the City Council. The council has ultimate say over whether Oakland would set up speed cameras and could do so if state law is changed.

Jay Beeber of Safer Streets LA, a transportation advocacy group, gave a guest presentation to the commission, saying that cameras aren’t equitable and often don’t work to reduce the speed at which people drive. He said that to make roads safer, it’s usually better to pursue engineering changes rather than relying on enforcement, which tends to hit low-income people harder.

However, several East Oakland residents who spoke to the commission during public comment said they think more enforcement is precisely what Oakland needs. One resident said the traffic along Bancroft Avenue, where she lives, has gotten increasingly bad and that every hour she sees vehicles speeding by, some illegally using the center turn lane to dangerously pass other cars.

The commission was also scheduled to discuss a separate surveillance camera program. District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor is leading the push for the cameras, which would be paid for by the city, but granted to businesses in Districts 6 and 7 in East Oakland.

In a newsletter sent earlier this week, Taylor wrote to his constituents: “You know all too well the challenges that surveillance cameras will help us address—from auto burglaries to strong-armed robberies, and even the well organized smash and grabs we saw increase during the pandemic.”

The program is already funded through a $150,000 allocation in the current budget.The privacy commission is in charge of reviewing the potential impacts the surveillance cameras might have on people’s privacy and civil liberties, and ensuring their benefits outweigh their costs. But the commission tabled the item last night. It will be discussed at the commission’s next meeting on Thursday, May 5.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.