Better Watch Out, Better Not Pout

Downtown surveillance helps the police watch every breath you take — if they want to

I’m sitting in Eugene police Lt. Doug Mozan’s unmarked SUV at 8th Avenue and Oak Street. He’s showing me how EPD can observe activity from two of the cameras located downtown. 

Accessing the camera near Kesey Square, he tries to zoom in on a group of people next to Sizzle Pie. Whoops, all of their backs are turned to the camera’s lens. 

“I guess they’re starting to catch on there’s a camera there,” I say. 

Mozan replies that’s OK. 

“We’re not here to snoop. We’re here to prevent crime,” he says. “This is public space so everybody should feel secure in their public spaces, and if there’s something that causes people to make better decisions in those spaces, then we’re for it.” 

This year saw the implementation of three mobile surveillance cameras intended to deter and capture any criminal activity. The cameras, though, aren’t the only sets of eyes the Eugene Police Department has. It also has the city of Eugene’s Downtown Ambassadors (dressed in blue polo shirts and khakis) and Downtown Eugene Inc.’s Downtown Guides (donning MAGA-esque red hats) to help its view of downtown. That’s a view that residents have said has been getting worse, according to a recent city-sponsored survey. 

However, EPD’s downtown Eugene surveillance activity has the Civil Liberties Defense League (CLDC) concerned for what sort of power dynamics this can result in. CLDC wants to put forth an alternative. 

EPD has three mobile camera trailers, which can be powered by a few ways: a diesel-fueled power generator, an attached solar panel or by plugging in to the city’s electrical grid. 

The high-definition cameras have digital enhancement attributes that can make a faraway license plate be read easier. The cameras, which stand 36 feet high, also have lights and can easily record during the night. EPD says it will not use the camera trailers with facial recognition software. 

The camera trailers are a part of an 18-month pilot program, which will run until April 2020. The pilot program policy says EPD will not use the trailers in a way that would invade peoples’ privacy or to harass, intimidate or discriminate anyone. 

The camera trailers, which cost the city slightly more than $150,000, can be mobilized anywhere. They can support personnel in monitoring a crime scene, be an extra set of eyes in a tactical scenario or help out during well-attended events like an Oregon Ducks football game. 

For now these cameras are set up downtown. As of press time, one is located at Kesey Square, another is on 8th Avenue and Olive Street and the third is in the shop for an oil change.

A camera trailer was moved to 8th Avenue and Olive Street after complaints of late night activity around the “Barmuda Triangle” area, Mozan says. 

Mozan adds that the cameras aren’t actively monitored by EPD. Sure, he can bring up the camera feeds from a laptop in a remote location — whether it’s in his office or his SUV — but EPD doesn’t have the labor to always watch the feed all the time. 

The police could if necessary, though. 

“If it needs to be active, we can certainly — we’re nimble enough — to switch gears and do that,” Mozan says.

The cameras are used passively. Video footage can be used for reference when a crime occurs. And that’s what EPD Chief Chris Skinner said his intentions were in downtown Eugene at a City Council work session meeting on May 14.

During the work session, Skinner said communities across the country have deterred criminal behavior by erecting mobile surveillance cameras based on analytics and residents’ complaints to the police. 

Downtown isn’t the only area that could benefit from them, he added. 

Mozan says cameras on the trailers are so good that crimes don’t have to happen right next to the cameras to be recorded. The cameras have an almost-CSI ability to zoom in while maintaining a clear quality. 

Footage from the trailers has been useful for police cases already. He showed me an instance where someone had banged on plywood replacing a downtown business’ broken window that has experienced a lot of vandalism. 

An EPD officer was able to take a snapshot of the person slamming on the plywood, print it out and ask downtown EPD officers if they knew who the person was. 

“It was pretty slick,” Mozan says. “Not the crime of the century, though.” 

It’s a small window into what these cameras are capable of, he adds. The cameras could achieve much more just by being there, he adds. 

When people see the trailers with the EPD branding, he says he hopes people will think twice “before making a bad decision.” 

The city’s watchful focus on downtown activity concerns CLDC. 

When it comes to the surveillance trailers, Cooper Brinson, a lawyer with CLDC, says that — although the Eugene Police Department may not know it — the social effect is creating docile bodies, a reference to the work of philosopher Michel Foucault. 

Brinson adds that those who spend time downtown are being disciplined by power through surveillance. The function of surveillance controls and affects residents, making them subjects. 

Mozan says he’s aware of some of the ethical issues of having the cameras downtown, but EPD should be trusted. 

“It’s not our intent to squelch freedom of expression or speech. We’re intentional about putting up these things in a way that they’re viewing public spaces,” Mozan says. “We’re not here to harden up our public spaces but to make it safer for our citizens — all of them.”

Because the trailers are publicly owned, it does mean that anyone can request video or audio from wherever the trailer is parked through a public records request. 

However, the trailers’ camera feed is erased after 30 days unless it’s being used for a case. 

It’s unclear whether there are more surveillance camera systems downtown. In the past, Eugene Weekly reported that Downtown Eugene Inc., a not-for-profit association that receives most of its money collected by the city from downtown business fees, has a surveillance system. 

However, the organization’s executive director, Claire Barnum, has not commented to either confirm or deny if it still has a surveillance system.  

EPD also has eyes on downtown activity through old school surveillance: Boots on the ground. 

Mozan says EPD has a great network of communication with Downtown Eugene, Inc.’s “Red Caps.”

Earlier this year, the city of Eugene brought on a staff of five Downtown Ambassadors — dressed in blue — who stroll downtown Eugene to provide a welcoming presence and customer service-oriented duties, according to Lindsey Selser, communications and policy analyst for the city of Eugene. 

The staff costs the city about $300,000 annually, which comes from the general fund and revenue from parking, Selser says. 

The Downtown Ambassador program began earlier in 2018, and so far people in Eugene aren’t sure about it, according to a citywide survey.  

For the third year, the city of Eugene sent out a survey to measure how people in the area view downtown Eugene. The survey had 2,228 answers and was open for a month. The results were published on Nov. 21. 

In the survey, 53 percent of participants said downtown Eugene is getting worse. In addition, responders seem to not know who the Downtown Ambassadors are: 46 percent were unsure whether the staff make Eugene safe and welcoming — and 32 percent said they didn’t make the area safe. 

Regardless, Selser says that in the past six months, the program has been helpful for downtown visitors. Each ambassador has a special line to EPD, but police tattling isn’t his or her main duty. 

Brinson says that CLDC plans to present some alternative policies that would resemble some of the work that Seattle and Oakland, California has done to prevent police surveillance. 

In May 2018, Oakland’s City Council voted to enact legislation that will make city departments submit a technology impact report. Oakland’s Privacy Commission and city council must then approve any new surveillance technology. In addition, the city’s current surveillance technology must undergo a public review and approval process. 

Nicole A. Ozer, the technology and civil liberties director of ACLU of California, commended this move by Oakland in a statement, saying the people of Oakland have protected their community from secret and invasive police surveillance thanks to a “landmark” surveillance ordinance.

Brinson adds that Eugene should implement a program like Oakland, something that would have some citizen oversight over these surveillance programs that aren’t toothless.

However, Mozan says he hopes the surveillance used downtown will become “old hat” in 2021. He adds that maybe the city would increase the amount of cameras to provide some sort of watchful eye for residents when the large influx of visitors flood into Eugene for the Olympic trials in 2020 and the world track championship in 2021.