In 2016, I and a couple of friends were among the many people who were upset at how then-mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, had responded to the actions of Sean Thompson, a local advocate for houseless veterans’ issues. Thompson threw a pie in Johnson’s face during a Seeds of HOPE Harvest Dinner. Johnson responded by pummeling Thompson’s face before police arrested Thompson, bringing him to a hospital and booking him into jail. We wanted to let the city and county know that we were upset with Thompson’s treatment, so we requested several documents detailing both the City’s and the District Attorney’s relationship to the houseless population.
As of publication, the District Attorney has not released any responsive records. The City, however, was far more willing and eager to help. The documents they sent in response are posted at the bottom of this essay and at the Internet Archive.
The City provided four general types of records. The first type of record is emails. The second type includes communications and plans about goings-on within the City. The third includes sales pitch documents from companies that sell “smart city” surveillance tech to cities. The fourth is reports and articles from law enforcement and law enforcement-adjacent offices (like trade magazines) that discuss current and proposed law enforcement policies and practices—crowd suppression, sporting events, and body-worn cameras. Given the current cultural and social trends in this country toward a “lenient centrism,” which is to say a non-committal acquiescence to an ascendant and emboldened fascism, the third and fourth categories begin to reveal the depth into private life these law enforcement offices seek to obtain.
The implications of Siemens Smart City technology are dire. The title of one document is “Siemens Smart City Technology Executive Presentation” and it promises to “transform cities for the better through sustainable technology.” How does it transform cities? The angle is economic prosperity and environmentalism. Consider the city’s “vertical real estate,” implores Siemens. Any municipal pole, whether it’s a street light, stoplight, or telephone pole, can be used to mount cameras, microphones, utility meters, lights, or whatever else the city wants to put up.
Having created a problem to solve, Siemens enters with the solution. These poles are clunky and cluttered and you can tell what each piece of equipment does, you are told. Siemens promises to solve these problems with a “unique, multi-function platform.” It’s a small box that fits on top of proprietary streetlights.
This box functions as a wifi router, cell site, last mile content delivery system, “audio streaming message system” (i.e. a PA system), air quality sensor, environmental monitor, electric vehicle charger, temperature and chemical monitor, utility grade meter, seismograph, lighting controller; it features “individual patrolling and facial recognition,” gunshot and vandalism detection, crowd detection and counting, and 360-degree HD video recording stored for up to 28 days. The sales documents present this without a hint of apology; in fact, there is no attempt to engage at all with the potential negative consequences of such a comprehensive surveillance system.
This is not the only slideshow from Siemens, however. Included in the pile of responsive documents was a presentation called “Siemens Smart City Solutions: Performance Based Outcomes for Cities.” Here, Siemens talks about “frankenpoles,”as though being able to see all the different surveillance apparatuses is an obstacle to be overcome. The community must not underestimate the public’s aesthetic interest in a device like the one Siemens is selling.
Siemens is certainly not the only company pitching these sales documents. Panasonic’s 2016 “Video Surveillance Catalog” (tagline: “Record. Capture. Control. With peace of mind.”) is 34 pages of surveillance cameras and their features. The Panasonic catalog is more of a build-your-own-surveillance-state, whereas the Siemens angle is a single-item holistic system.
Another sales pitch document provided by Sacramento is from a company called VideoInsight. The VideoInsight website (video-insight.com) redirects to a Panasonic.com subdomain (https://www.security.us.panasonic.com/feature/video-insight-7). This pilot program is directed towards school systems. Two schools in Tennessee, three schools in Florida, and one school or school district each in North Carolina and Alabama. Interestingly, under “Schools that have benefitted from the Pilot Program” you’ll find the Murray County Sheriff’s Department, of Murray County, GA.
Companies are capitalizing on these technologies, which do not dramatically alter safety or security to the spaces they watch. Instead, those who wield institutional power use these technologies to signify that power.
Another article in this series will detail the trade magazines for police in Sacramento. FOIA Horse will continue to update this post as more sales documents become available.