Allegheny County Council Considers Bill To Regulate Surveillance Technology

Oct 7, 2020

Allegheny County Council took up a bill Tuesday to regulate the acquisition and use of surveillance technology by county officials, including the district attorney and sheriff. 

Democrats Bethany Hallam and Liv Bennett introduced the proposal the same evening County Executive Rich Fitzgerald proposed a budget for 2021 that would continue the county's nearly decade-long streak of avoiding tax increases.

Under Hallam and Bennett’s newly introduced legislation, county officials would be prohibited from obtaining surveillance technology without council’s approval. The bill would cover a range of tools, including facial recognition technology, automatic license plate readers, gunshot detectors, and certain types of cameras.

“If you’re using surveillance technology to gather information about the taxpayers of this area, then it needs to be open to the other elected officials of Allegheny County,” Hallam said. Bennett did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill would not only regulate the purchase of surveillance technology, but would also stop officials from seeking grant money to fund those purchases and from borrowing the technology from other entities, unless they receive council's blessing first. County offices that employ the devices would also need to compile reports and policies on their use. The bill would make exceptions for emergency situations that involve a risk of death, serious injury, or significant property damage, but it would require officials to brief council on such circumstances.

Hallam and Bennett introduced their bill about two weeks after the city of Pittsburgh passed a law to regulate purchases of facial recognition and predictive policing technology. Similar to the Pittsburgh ordinance, Hallam cited privacy concerns as well as evidence that surveillance technology tends to misidentify women, people of color, and young people. She also worried that tools, such as those used to identify Black Lives Matter protesters who were later arrested, could chill free speech.

"If nothing else, this is about transparency,” she added. The use of surveillance technology "needs to be open to county council or proper oversight bodies to make sure that this information is being gathered and used ethically.”

Democratic County Councilperson Bethany Hallam.
Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA

In its current form, the county bill would apply to the district attorney and sheriff. In the past, county council has determined it has little oversight authority over the county sheriff, because – like the district attorney – he is independently elected. The issue came up when the body considered measures to create a civilian police review board and to ban the use of less lethal weapons.

Hallam countered, however, that council has power over the county budget and, thus, surveillance-related expenses: “It’s not about regulating those people as elected officials, as much as it is about regulating the use of taxpayer funds and taxpayers’ information.”

District Attorney Stephen Zappala and Sheriff William Mullen have said they don’t use facial-recognition software. But the DA’s office has established a network of license plate-reading cameras, and on Tuesday, a spokesperson said the cameras his office uses are already regulated by state law. “Any ordinance on the county level seeking to do the same thing is unnecessary,” the district attorney’s office said in a statement.

The sheriff’s office, meanwhile, has yet to take a position on the county council bill, which was sent to the body’s public safety committee Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald submitted his proposed 2021 budget to county council. Under that spending plan, the county’s property tax rate would not increase, marking the nineteenth time in the last 20 years without such a rise. The last property tax hike took place in 2012.

Fitzgerald proposed about $943 million in operating expenses for 2021, nearly a 2 percent decrease over this year. The reduction resulted in part from lower populations at the county jail, Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, and Kane nursing homes, Fitzgerald said. The facilities have sought to limit occupancy amid COVID-19, although Fitzgerald noted that there has been a rise in the county's health and human services costs.

On Tuesday, he also asked for funds to create a new “Children Initiatives” department aimed at providing early childhood services. The agency would be financed through public and private partnerships, according to a statement from the county.

The county executive noted that the overall decrease in operational spending will help the county to weather the coronavirus crisis. "You will see that many of our revenues did decrease over this year, and understandably so," he told the councilors. "Our pour drink tax revenues are down. Our car rental tax is down. The casino tax is down. The hotel/motel tax is down. And our court fee collections are also down."

But Fitzgerald added that the county's sales tax, which goes to the Allegheny Regional Asset District, has "been relatively stable." New construction has also helped to sustain property taxes, which Fitzgerald called a sign "that people continue to invest, continue to work, continue to move forward in this region."

While the executive proposed extending the county’s pandemic-related hiring freeze through the first six months of 2021, he said the county has not had to cut any jobs and that he does not anticipate future layoffs.

County council will hold public hearings on the budget October 27 and 29 at 5 p.m.