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Miami Beach Might Rein in Police Surveillance

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In recent years, South Florida police have quietly begun stalking citizens using a wide array of 21st-century technology. License-plate trackers have popped up across Miami-Dade County. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, scores of Florida cops have used Stingray devices, which pinpoint a person's location using a cell phone signal. In most cases, departments can track civilians without a warrant.

This trend frightens many civil liberties advocates, including former county prosecutor Michael Grieco, who is now a Miami Beach commissioner.

Grieco says he doesn't think police are subject to enough oversight before they start tracking people, so he's sponsoring an ACLU-written ordinance to place stricter limits on how Miami Beach cops and city officials can track residents.

"I just think it’s good policy," Grieco tells New Times. "I don’t think it’s overreaching into law enforcement. As technologies change, the way we police society changes, so there needs to be an adequate amount of oversight from [elected officials]."

If enacted, the measure would force any city department — including Miami Beach Police — to get the city commission's written approval before buying or using virtually any form of surveillance technology. (This includes cell-phone trackers, license-plate readers, closed-circuit cameras, gunshot detectors such as ShotSpotter, social-media-monitoring software, and many other devices.) Tracking people on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender will be illegal as well.

The commission will debate the measure at its meeting this Wednesday.

The measure is part of a national ACLU campaign to enact stricter laws on government spying. In September, 11 metro areas announced they would propose bills to crack down on surveillance, including New York City; Washington, D.C.; Palo Alto, California; and Pensacola. The campaign, known as the #TakeCTRL initiative, has been endorsed by 17 civil rights organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Jeffrey Hearne, the ACLU of Florida's Greater Miami Chapter president, says Miami Beach's ordinance was "adapted" from a national draft the ACLU wrote on its own. The vote comes just after the Miami Beach Police Department announced it would begin publishing arrest and internal affairs data online as part of a U.S. Department of Justice initiative.

"When people think of surveillance, people think of the FBI and the Patriot Act," Hearne says. "But if you really look at it, more and more local jurisdictions are using this technology, and there need to be protections locally."

Neither Grieco nor Hearne said they'd heard anything from the police union as to whether it supports the measure. A call to the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police was not immediately returned.

As a former prosecutor, Grieco says many cases he worked on involved spying on citizens in some form.

"I was involved in dozens of proactive gang and RICO [racketeering and corruption] investigations, pretty much all put together through surveillance," he says. "We put up pole cams, we would do undercover ops, and we would try to use technology the best we could. Now there are drones, surveillance balloons, infrared sensors, license-plate readers, all these different things. They're great tools, important tools, but they need oversight."

If the measure passes, it would then be up to city officials such as Grieco to make sure that all city officials — not just cops — are correctly using technology such as biometric readers or facial-recognition software. They must especially watch to ensure that police don't infringe on the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from "unreasonable search and seizure."

If the bill has a weakness, it could be city officials themselves: Florida city governments routinely rubber-stamp requests from police. This summer, Miami-Dade County gave its police department a maximum of $5.6 million for ShotSpotter, a gunshot-detecting microphone system. The department, however, failed to disclose it had used ShotSpotter once before and abandoned the technology after finding it didn't work very well.

"This forces the police department to proactively state what steps they need to take to protect civil liberties," Hearne, of the ACLU, says. "If the elected officials don’t read the report or don't challenge the positions in the report, that’s a different issue, and we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. But this starts the discussion." 

Here's a copy of the proposed ordinance:

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