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Oakland Police Department renews contract with controversial forensic data company

on December 8, 2020

Last Tuesday, Oakland City Council renewed the Police Department’s contract with the cloud-based software company Forensic Logic for use of its data-sharing platform COPLINK. COPLINK, which has been used by OPD since 2012, allows officers to search and analyze data shared by “several thousand law enforcement agencies across the United States.” 

The contract costs the city a total of $704,000 over a three-year period. The resolution passed 7-0. Councilmember Nikki Fortunato-Bas (District 2) abstained from voting citing concerns over third-party access to OPD data raised by the Privacy Advisory Commission (PAC) last September. “I just really want us to understand fully the recommendation from the PAC and the potential harms to civil liberties to have open, unfettered access to our data,” Fortunato-Bas said. 

As a sanctuary city, Oakland cannot designate its officers to work with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) but reports from 2018 show that ICE has direct access to COPLINK and utilized police department data from at least 25 local police agencies. Given those concerns, the PAC put forth recommendations for the city to restrict COPLINK data sharing to law enforcement agencies in Alameda county only. 

Privacy Commission Chair Brian Hofer stressed the importance of regulating Oakland’s data sharing capabilities.   

 “This is not a radical idea. It’s now the standard at the federal, state and local levels,” he said. COPLINK essentially functions as a Google search bar of police records and provides no options to screen or vet a third party who is trying to access the city’s data. “Their technology doesn’t work that way. So we had to draw a line somewhere because there are values at risk. Not every jurisdiction is a sanctuary jurisdiction,” Hofer continued. 

The restrictions the PAC called for were not included in Tuesday’s resolution due to objections from OPD, who argued that real-time data sharing assists both local and federal criminal investigations. “San Francisco PD and San Jose PD are two of the very top agencies whose investigations have benefited from access to OPD’s data. ATF is also a top user,” Police Captain Jake Bassett said. 

Interim Police Chief Susan Manheimmer said restricting data sharing would also inhibit investigations in Oakland. She referenced a recent string of armed robberies at cannabis facilities throughout the city. “Our green economy partners—the marijuana distributors, dispensaries and growers—they have been targeted by those coming in from Southern California,” Mainheimmer said. 

The most recent weekly crime data paints a complicated picture of violent crime during the pandemic. Compared to last year, robberies and burglaries are down 20% and 38% respectively. Yet, the city has seen a surge in gun violence and has topped 100 homicides for the first time in seven years. “One of the things that’s driving my support of the motion is the tremendous pain that our community is in especially in light of COVID. We’ve noticed a significant uptick of [human] trafficking and regional kind of crime bands that have been operating,” Councilmember McElhaney (District 3) said.  

Even if the city were to restrict OPD data sharing within COPLINK, law enforcement agencies could still access these records via email and phone requests handled by OPD records personnel. “So we’re just creating a friction point by making it less easy. But we’re not prohibiting anything, you can still get this data by other means,” Hofer explained. 

Ultimately, the seven Councilmembers who voted on the resolution believed that the value of real-time data sharing outweighs potential privacy concerns. “As we are looking at reimagining public safety, we are looking at ways to extend our officers and our staff to where they can get things done with [fewer] bodies and less time,” Councilmember Loren Taylor (District 6) said. 

Earlier this year, Taylor introduced legislation that created the “Reimagining Public Safety Taskforce” which aims to reduce OPD’s general fund by 50% by addressing the root causes of violence and crime. 

Oakland’s contract with Forensic Logic is set to expire again in 2023.

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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

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