Approval Comes in spite of Significant Opposition – and a Missing Vice Mayor

A chorus of jeers, curses, and boos, peppered with cries of “shame!”, erupted in the Culver City Council chambers the moment the body voted 3-1 to approve a $70,000 Culver City Police Department (CCPD) purchase of 8 camera-equipped drones. The decision, which came after a nearly 6-hour special meeting to discuss the drone request and a $500,000 request for an automatic license plate reader (ALPR) system, marked a clear defeat for the majority anti-surveillance attendees.

Said longtime Culver City resident Donna Kent prior to the meeting: “No drones, no license plate readers – ever.”

Despite hearing opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the Culver City Action Network (CCAN), and several unaffiliated Culver City residents, the council authorized the drone purchase and ratified a policy for their usage. The opponents in attendance were not unanimous, however, as a handful of residents took to the public podium voicing their support.

To call the meeting “testy” would profoundly understate the tension and rowdiness that saturated the Mike C. Balkman Chambers throughout the evening. Most speakers received healthy applause after sharing discontent, and folks supportive of the measures received counter-claps following their 90 seconds of comment.

Outgoing Mayor Jeffrey Cooper repeatedly threatened to throw out audience members – particularly a raucous group from the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition – who were not afraid to catcall both the CCPD officers lobbying for the purchases and the councilmembers who expressed support.

Some individuals directly insulted the Mayor with shouts of “dictator!”, accusations of being “smug,” and declarations that he “radiated white supremacy.” In the end, no one was removed.

“I’m thrilled that the City declined to engage Vigilant on the license plate technology.” – Mohammed Tajsar of the American Civil Liberties Union

The results were not all bad for dissidents at the meeting. The first agenda item – a half million dollar, uncompetitive contract with ALPR company Vigilant Solutions for cameras, data storage, and data-analytic software – failed after Councilmember Sahli-Wells and Mayor Cooper articulated opposition.

Most concerns from the Council and from residents centered around Culver City’s status as a sanctuary city. They questioned whether the City could justify that status if they contracted with Vigilant, which shares license plate data with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“I’m thrilled that the City declined to engage Vigilant on the license plate technology,” said Mohammed Tajsar of the ACLU after the meeting. “It demonstrates that there are communities across the state and across the country who are deeply concerned about that relationship between Vigilant and ICE.”

The item was a budget amendment and therefore needed four members of the council to vote yes. With Vice Mayor Thomas Small out due to a planned surgery, passage required unanimous approval of the present councilmembers.

Suited representatives from Vigilant Solutions helped the CCPD make their pitch, but ultimately the effort fell on deaf ears. After no councilmember made a motion to pass the agenda item, effectively killing it, the Vigilant suits left quickly.

I caught up with them in the parking structure to ask for comment before they disappeared.

“We’re very disappointed with the outcome and wish the city good fortune and safety,” said Vigilant Vice President of Sales Neil Schlisserman, who had spoken before the council.

Culver City residents listen to the debate over surveillance drones for the Culver City Police Department
Culver City residents listen to the debate over surveillance drones for the Culver City Police Department. The majority in attendance were opposed to the program, which eventually passed with a 3-1 Council vote.

After the ALPR item failed, the Council moved on to consider police surveillance drones. Since it was a regular agenda item, a simple majority was all that was required to pass. Mayor Cooper and Councilmember Goran Eriksson expressed continued support for the measure, while Councilmember Sahli-Wells asked for further dialogue before voting to approve. That meant Councilmember Jim Clarke would make the deciding vote.

After hearing testimony from over 30 residents, the overwhelming majority of whom were in opposition, Mr. Clarke voted in favor of the drone program.

“People are already facing so much violence by the police so this just gives them more tools and pumps up that violence.” – Mariella Saba of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition

“There’s so many practical, purposeful uses that can come about by having these drones, to assist the Fire Department, the Public Works Department, and in other instances,” he told me after the meeting, reflecting comments he made from the dais. He said he believed the drone policy ensured adequate privacy protections and the City Council could provide requisite oversight for the program.

Councilmember Sahli-Wells, during and after the meeting, expressed discontent that the vote occurred without Vice Mayor Small.

“It’s distressing that the future Mayor of Culver City … was robbed of his voice and his vote on this matter. The special meeting was scheduled on the day he had a surgery – and the council was well aware of his absence in advance,” she wrote in an email. She went on to say: “The bad timing and bad faith … lies squarely on the Council’s shoulders, and it is shameful.”

Others who attended the meeting were similarly dismayed by the outcome.

“I definitely feel outraged,” said Mariella Saba of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition following the meeting. “They disrespected all those voices [of opposition] by voting for this … People are already facing so much violence by the police so this just gives them more tools and pumps up that violence.”

She went on to say, “It’s also outrageous that the City Council, who I’m naming as violent white supremacists and police-aligned, will be overseeing the policy too. That’s scary.”

There is no timetable for how quickly the Culver City Police Department’s new surveillance drone program will be instituted.