Friday, June 9, 2017

LGBTQ Groups In Alameda Reject Mayor's Pride Month Proclamation, Demand Apology For Vote Against Same-Sex Curriculum

by Steven Tavares
Fri, Jun 9, 2017 at 5:12 PM

Eight years after Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer voted against allowing same-sex curriculum in Alameda schools, members of the LGBTQ community showed up at City Council on Tuesday to reject her proclamation of Pride Month — and to demand an apology.

  • Photo By Steven Tavares
On Tuesday night, prior to the council meeting, the city held a well-attended celebration in front of City Hall in honor of Pride. But some members of the Alameda LGBTQ community declined to pose for a group photo with the mayor (right). Instead, they formed an equally large alternative photo opportunity next to the city-sanctioned one.

The city’s four councilmembers also joined the protest photo-op, in solidarity with the community’s stance against the mayor’s past positions on LGBTQ issues (see below). Councilmember Frank Matarrese said he intended to take part in both photo-ops, however.

  • Photo By Steven Tavares
Olivia Higgins, a member of the Alameda Unified School District’s LGBTQ round table, said at the event that her group wants “direct acknowledgement of the hurt and the pain [Spencer’s vote] put on our community so many years ago."

She was referring 2009, when then-school board member Spencer voted against allowing references to gays and lesbians in Alameda elementary-school curriculum. The mayor’s vote came in the shadow of the Proposition 8 campaign against marriage equality in California, and, according to news reports at the time, Spencer said supporting the same-sex curriculum would promote bullying against those who oppose it for religious reasons.

Spencer’s school-board vote was not much of an issue during her unexpected 2014 mayoral victory over the incumbent Marie Gilmore.

But on Tuesday, the LGBTQ group's protest continued after the photo-op and during the council meeting, when members declined to accept a formal city proclamation declaring June “Pride Month” in Alameda. (See the video at the top of the story.)

Rev. Dr. Laura Rose, senior minister at First Congregational Church of Alameda, United Church of Christ, said the city’s invitation to participate in the group photo with Spencer “re-opened a very deep wound.” She told council that her group “would like to return the proclamation, respectfully, to Mayor Spencer, and would like to ask for a public apology for the pain that was caused during that time."

“We believe that will lend credibility and integrity to the signature at the bottom of the proclamation. We believe that Mayor Spencer wants to do the right thing,” Rose said.

Spencer responded by stating that the proclamation was not intended for a particular group, then asked if any other LGBTQ community members would accept the proclamation and pose for a photo. Three members of the public stood and joined the mayor.

After the meeting, Spencer told the Express that she did not know a separate photo op was being organized. She also said protesters “were detracting from the powerful statement that our city is making.”

“I wish the focus was on what our city did. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to apologize for them detracting from what our city is doing,” the mayor said. “I don’t appreciate it.

She continued: “I will not apologize for wanting all children to be protected and feel safe. It’s sad we are where we are,” then added that she fully supports the LGBTQ community

Spencer also noted that some of the individuals who declined to accept Tuesday night’s proclamation had no qualms accepting a different proclamation, last October, in celebration of LGBT history month.

“I don’t know what happened from then to Tuesday night for them to have such a different response?” Spencer asked.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan Sponsoring Legislation to Cut Police Ties with Immigration Enforcement

by Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston
Wed, Jun 7, 2017 at 5:20 PM

Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan is following a recommendation from the city's privacy committee and requesting a council vote to cut ties with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.

Last week, the Oakland privacy committee held a hearing on the city's multiple task force agreements with federal law enforcement agencies, focusing on ways these joint operations agreement could violate people's privacy and civil rights. The hearing uncovered a previously unknown memorandum of understanding between the Oakland police and ICE that allows OPD officers to work in task forces alongside ICE agents.

OPD told the privacy commission that they haven't conducted any joint operations with ICE under the agreement. OPD also insists that its policy is to never enforce immigration laws, and that any possible joint operations with ICE are to combat international drug and human trafficking and other serious felonies.

But privacy committee chair Brian Hofer said the fact that OPD hasn't conducted joint operations with ICE is all the more reason to terminate the agreement.

Kaplan told the Express today that the city should do what it can to protect its residents from any possible abuses by immigration authorities.

"I think in this era when we've seen more and more concerns about ICE exceeding what is appropriate for public safety, that people are being arrested purely for their immigration status, that it's all the more important for Oakland to make clear we won't collude with this kind of behavior," said Kaplan.

"ICE has been at the forefront of the inappropriate racial targeting we say we're against in Oakland," she continued. "We need to take action locally to make sure our communities feel safe interacting with our law enforcement."

Kaplan's proposal goes to the city council's rules and legislation committee tomorrow. She's asking that it be heard on its merits at the July 11 meeting of the council's public safety committee.

Oakland City Council Fights Over How to Reduce Homicides, Violence

by Gabrielle Canon
Wed, Jun 7, 2017 at 11:48 AM

Last night, after a contentious and emotional debate, Oakland City Council narrowly passed a proposal to establish a violence-prevention commission — but not without sparking tensions among officials.

Introduced by Councilmember Desley Brooks, and with support from Councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington and Noel Gallo, the new blue-ribbon commission was offered as a response to a separate proposal to create an official Department for Violence Prevention, which Brooks has vehemently criticized for lacking a concrete strategy.

“If we are serious — and we cannot afford to deliver any more empty promises to a community that has lost its sons and its daughters and its children to violence—it would irresponsible for us as council to move forward on a concept that lacks any substance,” Brooks said.

Her plan gives the commission six months to define “violence,” and determine ways to reduce it. The process will include a series of educational town halls, and a deeper look into how other cities address violence. Each councilmember will be expected to nominate someone to serve on the commission by Monday, June 12.

Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney — who had been fighting for the Violence Prevention Department for the past two months — was visibly outraged during the discussion, arguing that an exploratory commission is just another way for the city to drag its feet.

Oakland continues to rank among the top ten most violent cities in the country. And, even after voters decided to renew a parcel tax in 2014 that would bring in millions of dollars for violence-reduction programs, the city has struggled to lower its homicide rate below the five-year average of 93 murders a year.

Residents have long demanded officials to do more to quell violence, pushing for strategies that rely less on law enforcement and more on community engagement but the public also remains divided over whether to create a department to oversee violence prevention.

At previous meetings, representatives from community organizations and individuals shared heartbreaking stories of lost loved ones, and pleaded with officials to support the new department — and do it with urgency. McElhaney herself was hit by loss in 2015, when a teen she helped raise and considered her grandson was shot and killed.

But some — including Brooks — expressed frustration with the proposal’s lack of a strategy, and even accused proponents of playing on people’s emotions with empty promises.

The commission passed on Tuesday with five votes, but a previous amendment — which would restrict the approval of a new department until after the commission submits its findings to the council — resulted in a tie: Councilmembers Brooks, Campbell Washington, Gallo, and Abel Guillen for; and Dan Kalb, Rebecca Kaplan, McElhaney, and Larry Reid against. The tie can be broken by the mayor, if she chooses to intervene at a June 20 meeting. While it is still unclear if the mayor will decide to cast a vote, her administration has previously come out against the creation of a Department of Violence Prevention, and the city administrator issued a staff report recommending against its adoption.

After last night’s vote, McElhaney condemned the decision, saying she was insulted and appalled by the amendment that could delay discussions of a new department for another six months. Because the council is currently finalizing its two-year budget, this would mean a new department likely could not be established until the next budget cycle, in 2020.

“I did not bring victims families out tonight. I did not call for people to come, because I did not think that this body would take this as an opportunity to say that we will take another two years or three years before we bring in a high level executive to actually take over the violence prevention work,” McElhaney shouted, as Council President Larry Reid attempted to move forward to the next vote.

McElhaney continued: “I have sat in these debates, I have tried to maintain my composure, and I have tried to petition each mayor to take this seriously only to be told to wait, time and time again.”

Tobacco Industry Lobbyists Descend on Oakland to Oppose Ban of Flavored Blunt Wrappers and Cigars

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, Jun 7, 2017 at 8:07 AM

Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington poses for a picture with anti-tobacco advocates at last night's meeting.
  • Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington poses for a picture with anti-tobacco advocates at last night's meeting.

The rumor swirling around Oakland's City Council meeting last night was that Rev. Al Sharpton, or a deputy from his National Action Network organization, was going to make an appearance and speak out against a proposed ban on flavored tobacco products.

Sharpton didn't show, but several councilmembers told the Express that they've already met with other lobbyists working for the tobacco industry.

Tobacco companies are worried about the latest public health initiative gaining traction in cities: bans on flavored cigars, blunt wrappers, menthols, and vape juice that critics say target youth and people of color with a deadly product.

Several Oakland councilmembers said they'll listen to the tobacco industry's representatives, but that it won't change their support for the ban.

"I'm still going to support it," said Councilmember Larry Reid, who added that he's already met with one lobbyist of the tobacco industry, although he couldn't immediately recall the man's name. Reid also said that a group of Black women have asked to sit down with him to explain their concerns about the proposed law. According to Reid, their message is that the ban will hurt small businesses, some of them owned by Black entrepreneurs.

Reid used to smoke, but he underwent a heart procedure in April. He said at a rally supporting the flavored tobacco ban last month that his personal health problems stem from using tobacco, and this experience has led him to strongly support the ordinance.

Flavored blunt wrappers manufactured by New Image Global including "Chicken & Waffles." - NEW IMAGE GLOBAL
  • New Image Global
  • Flavored blunt wrappers manufactured by New Image Global including "Chicken & Waffles."
Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington, who is spearheading the anti-tobacco ordinance, said that she already met with Lance Alexander of New Image Global, one of the leading manufacturers of blunt wrappers that come in flavors including watermelon and chicken and waffles. Alexander's message to her was that the flavored ban will create a black market and hurt small, local businesses.

Campbell Washington and Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan also told the Express that they heard rumors that Sharpton's National Action Network might get involved in Oakland before the council votes on the ban.

Sharpton's group has been lobbying local governments against tobacco restrictions on the grounds that such laws further "criminalize" people of color. And he's brought this message to Oakland before.

Last October, Sharpton told a gathering at Oakland's Beebe Memorial Cathederal that banning menthol cigarettes will create a vast underground market, and lead to more confrontations between Black people and law enforcement that could result in further mass incarceration and violence.

The National Action Network didn't immediately respond to an email from the Express seeking comment.

However, proponents of the flavored tobacco ban in Oakland say that Sharpton has taken money from the tobacco industry, and that he and others are spreading misinformation.

"This ordinance does not criminalize African American men," said Marcia Brown-Machen, the co-chair of Alameda County's Tobacco Control Coalition. "People who come to speak to you have taken money from the tobacco industry. The penalty will always be on the merchant, not the consumer."

Carol McGruder, the co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said that the tobacco industry developed the message that flavored bans, especially those limiting the sale of menthols, will criminalize Black people, but that there's no truth to this.

Instead, McGruder said the tobacco industry is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Black people because it has purposefully marketed menthol cigarettes to African Americans.

Serena Chen, who worked for the American Lung Association for twenty-three years, said the industry heavily lobbied Oakland's leaders in 1993 just before the city passed its original anti-second hand smoking ordinance. "The Tobacco Institute, a front group of the industry, came to Oakland and offered $25,000 to various people who were close friends of the mayor in order to defeat the ordinance," said Chen.

That industry's effort fell flat. Proponents of the flavored ban say they don't expect the industry to stop the new law either.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Hayward Tweeted an Image of a Taco, and the Phrase 'Let's Taco Bout It,' to Promote Tonight's Sanctuary-City Discussion

by Steven Tavares
Tue, Jun 6, 2017 at 3:04 PM

This morning, just hours before Hayward city council's scheduled discussion of whether or not to become a sanctuary city, the city's official Twitter account posted an image of a taco and the phrase "Let's Taco About It" — a Tweet that has activists accusing the city of bigotry.


Two other tweets promoting different city events also included the hashtag "#TacoBoutItTuesday."

Luis Reynoso, a member of Hayward's school board, said the Twitter post shows that city council is "out of control."

“They have no control over what city staff is doing, when there's so much bigotry and racism in Hayward," he told the Express.

For months, Reynoso has been highly critical of city council and its handling of the sanctuary-city issue, accusing officials of dragging their feet.
The city's three tweets were removed hours after posted and replaced with an apology:
While many other East Bay governments have declared themselves sanctuary cities — or the less politically volatile designation of "compassionate city" — Hayward has been silent. This despite the fact that 40 percent of Hayward's population is Latino, including more than 60 percent of school children.

"Obviously, I was offended, as a Latina and an immigrant," Denize Sanchez said of the city's Tweet. Sanchez is a member of Hayward Collective: Hella Diverse, a community group that has been working on the sanctuary city issue for months.

“When we use cultural appropriations like equating a taco to Latinos, we take a few steps back. It’s a little bit disrespectful,” Sanchez told the Express.

The tweet, and the city's handling of the sanctuary city issue, "creates a bit of hard feelings,” she added. “It’s sad that we have to wait this long for the city council to take this up.”

In late January, Hayward City Council resisted calls to place a sanctuary city item on its agenda, despite mounting pressure from residents. Instead, the council voted to create a 22-person task force, charged with updating Hayward’s nearly three-decades-old anti-discrimination policy. In late April, the task force recommended that Hayward become a sanctuary city.

But the city administration and Mayor Barbara Halliday have consistently argued that many of policies that represent sanctuary cities, such as declining to cooperate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are already in place in Hayward.

City officials also express concerns that, if it becomes a sanctuary city, it could put an estimated $30 million in potential federal funding at risk.

And at a council meeting in April, Halliday told a Hayward school teacher during public comment that the city could not help students fearful of President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. "Unfortunately, though, I can't tell you to tell them they're safe, because we are not in charge of the federal government," Halliday explained.

Tonight’s agenda does not include a specific recommendation from city staff on whether or not to become a sanctuary city.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Town Business: Oakland Isn't Meeting Its Affordable Housing Goals; Is the City Discriminating in Contracting?

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Jun 5, 2017 at 6:52 AM

The 40-unit 632 14th Street was the only affordable housing project issued a building permit in Oakland in 2016. - META HOUSING CORPORATION.
  • Meta Housing Corporation.
  • The 40-unit 632 14th Street was the only affordable housing project issued a building permit in Oakland in 2016.
Affordable Housing: Like other cities, Oakland is required each year to report on whether it's meeting regionally-determined housing construction goals. This year's update, summarizing building permits issued in 2016, shows that while market-rate apartments and homes are filling up the city's construction pipeline, new affordable housing projects have virtually disappeared.

To keep up with the bare minimum goals set under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, Oakland needs to build 870 affordable housing units every year. This is a minimum based on projections of economic and demographic trends. In reality, the city probably needs to do more.

But last year, public agencies, nonprofits, and private developers only pulled building permits to add 39 affordable units. That's only 4.5 percent of the minimum goal.

  • City of Oakland.

By contrast, Oakland's market-rate housing market has picked up a lot. In 2015, the city issued 771 permits for market-rate apartments, homes, and condos. In 2016, the number of permits jumped to 2,212. If most of these are built, the city will reach 100 percent of its yearly market-rate goal of adding 1,845 new units. But these are still bare minimums necessary to expand housing supply and mitigate price increases at the top of market.

Oakland's $600 million infrastructure bond, Measure KK, sets aside $100 million for affordable housing. And the county's infrastructure bond, A1, also dedicates funding. But the loss of the state redevelopment program, and the long-term disinvestment in subsidized housing for low-income renters by the federal government, means that the amount of funding for new affordable housing is much lower than it was in the past.

Does Oakland Discriminate?: Back in 1996, state voters approved Proposition 209 as part a Pete Wilson-era backlash against affirmative action. One of Prop 209's rules is that local governments can't consider race or gender when making decisions about who to award contracts to. In other words, local governments have to be colorblind, even though they weren't colorblind for for the nation's entire history and routinely shut out women-led and non-white owned firms.

After two decades of litigating similar state laws enforcing colorblind policies, the U.S. Supreme Court found that local governments can implement race and gender-sensitive affirmative action policies, but only if they can prove that women and monitory-owned firms exist, are capable of doing the work, but are receiving a disproportionately lower number of contracts. In other words, a local government has to measure actual discrimination before taking steps level the playing field.

Ever since Prop 209, Oakland has intended to determine, via a rigorous statistical analysis, whether its own contracting programs are discriminatory. This week, the City Council is set to approve a $490,000 contract with a consultant who will examine the past five years of contracting data from the city to see if women and non-whites are being disproportionately shut out of business opportunities.

If the study shows evidence of discrimination, Oakland will revise its contracting policies.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Amid Calls to 'Defund' Oakland Police, City Settles $989,000 Claim of Sexually Exploited Teen 'Celeste Guap'

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, May 31, 2017 at 10:42 AM

Protesters at the Oakland Police Department's headquarters on Friday, June 17. - ALI WINSTON
  • Ali Winston
  • Protesters at the Oakland Police Department's headquarters on Friday, June 17.
At the end of a nine-hour meeting that went until 2 a.m. this morning, the Oakland City Council approved a $989,000 claim filed by the young woman known as Celeste Guap.

Guap, who is now 19-years-old, was sexually exploited by upwards of 30 police officers and sheriff's deputies from various Bay Area police agencies between 2015 and 2016.

The daughter of an Oakland Police Department dispatcher, Guap has said in past interviews that she was a commercially exploited child sex worker, and that she met several Oakland cops while she was still underage and working on the streets.

Her treatment at the hands of numerous police officers, and the resulting scandal due to the Oakland Police Department's effort to cover up an internal investigation of the incidents, led to the resignation of three police chiefs last year, and the filing of criminal charges against multiple current and former police officers from Oakland, a Livermore cop, and a Contra Costa sheriff's deputy.

"The settlement occurred with no admission of liability, but obviously if you pay $1 million, you figure you got some responsibility," said Guap's attorney John Burris in a press statement issued today.

Councilmember Desley Brooks registered the sole no vote against the settlement, saying she believed the young woman's suffering wasn't fairly compensated, and that it is wrong for the city to claim no responsibility.

"Think about this young girl, who was victimized under the color of authority," said Brooks. "There is something wrong with this."

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf characterized the settlement as a quick and fair resolution, and said in an emailed statement that she and her new police chief are focused on "rebuilding the public trust that was so damaged by this incident."

Schaaf said the city's new police commission would bring added oversight to the department.

"These steps further our commitment to consistently advancing best practices, holding officers accountable, and ensuring that OPD meets the highest standards of policing."

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said in a statement that the scandal was partly the result of OPD's lack of diversity and that the department needs to undergo a cultural change.

"We need to ensure that we are building the conditions that make it possible to have trust and healing between the community and our law enforcement officers, and cut sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse," said Kaplan. "This includes recruiting more women, LGBT people, African Americans and more people from Oakland."

The vote came after a lengthy city council meeting, much of which focused on Oakland's upcoming two-year budget. Numerous members of the public commented throughout the night that the city should spend less on its police, and more on homeless services and affordable housing.

Under Schaaf's proposal, the police department's budget would grow from $274 million this past year to $291 million in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

Many commented that they think the proposed $250,000 two-year increase on homelessness services is too low. Members of an ad hoc working group on homelessness said the city should instead allocate $10 million next year to provide basic services like water, trash pickup, toilets, and fire extinguishers to the homeless camps, while also spending money to acquire properties as transitional housing.

As with all other costly police misconduct settlements, the nearly $1 million settlement in the Guap case will be paid out of the city's general purpose fund.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Oakland's Fire Inspection Fees Set to Double

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, May 30, 2017 at 2:25 PM


Bills for fire code inspections of most residential and commercial properties will more than double if the Oakland City Council approves a new fee schedule at their meeting tonight.

Regularly scheduled general inspections and complaint-based inspections of small to medium sized buildings currently cost $158 per hour. The new fees for regular and complaint-based inspections will be $339 per hour, with a one-hour minimum.

Inspections conducted after hours will rise from $236 to $508 per hour.

Special housing facilities like care homes, halfway houses, and foster homes will see an even steeper fee increase.

Halfway houses — like 2551 San Pablo Avenue, which burned in a March fire that killed four — used to pay a flat $100 fee. They're set to pay $339 per hour, with a one hour minimum, under the new fee schedule.

Oakland's Fire Department put off raising inspection fees in previous years. But delaying fee increases in the past meant that the inspection program wasn't fully funding itself, "burdening the general purpose fund with a substantial subsidy to off-set those fees which were not increased at the time," according to a memo written by Fire Marshal Miguel Trujillo.

Trujillo wrote that the new inspection fee levels should completely pay for the costs of the Fire Prevention Bureau, freeing up the general fund money for other purposes.

Mayor Libby Schaaf's proposed budget calls for adding an additional twelve fire inspector positions on top of the existing eight.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Parents, Teachers, and Students at Oakland Charter School Accuse Leadership of Mismanagement

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, May 24, 2017 at 10:41 AM


Dozens of students walked out of the American Indian Model Schools' downtown campus this morning, joining parents and teachers to protest what they say is the mismanagement of one of Oakland's largest charter schools.

"There are so many problems here," said Senait Mehari, a parent of a first grade student at AIMS elementary. "Great teachers are leaving."

"It's basically a dictatorship."

Mehari and several other parents told the Express that AIMS Superintendent Maya Woods-Cadiz and the charter organization's board of directors have been ignoring concerns about the school's budget, and many other issues.

They claim that the school exploits teachers by hiring them as at-will employees, instead of offering stable contracts. The air conditioning on several floors in the building has been broken for months, and students are forced to use old text books while teachers buy supplies with their own money.

The parents and teachers protesting this morning also claim that the charter's board of directors routinely makes decisions in private, without sufficient community input, and that the school's top executive, Woods-Cadiz, recently received a big pay increase, from $142,000 a year to $185,000.

"The schools need money, there's so many problems," said Mehari, questioning why the superintendent would receive such a large pay bump instead of fixing broken air conditioners.

The Express called AIMS' administrative office this morning but was told that Woods-Cadiz was unavailable for an interview. A receptionist also said there was no one who could respond to the protesters' allegations, then hung up.

Teachers and parents' foremost concern is the mysterious resignation of Elston Perry, the popular head of schools for AIMS.

According to several teachers and former staff members who were at this morning's protest, Perry resigned recently over a disagreement with Woods-Cadiz and the board. Staff and parents attended a board meeting last week to demand that Perry be reinstated to his position. But the head of school remains out. Many feel that he was pushed out.

This morning, outside of the AIMS 12th Street campus, children held picket signs and chanted "We need Dr. Perry! We need books!"

Mimi Pham worked as the parent coordinator for AIMS until today, when she resigned. Pham said the school's board and superintendent were eliminating key staff members, like Perry, while making financial decisions that were "not transparent."

In one instance, Pham told the board that even though the budget allocated money for field trips, the students hadn't taken any. She questioned where the money was going. "When I raised the budget issues, [Woods-Cadiz] took the budget document offline," Pham claimed. "We are questioning her integrity and their use of public money."

According to a petition circulating among the parents and staff at the protest, AIMS schools suffer from "errors in budgeting, inability to settle employee contracts, lack of long range strategic planning, lack of school supplies, lack of textbooks, lack of field trips for students, historically low employee morale, poor communciations," and more. The petition calls for the removal of Woods-Cadiz.

Monday, May 22, 2017

BART Police Accused of Illegally Collecting Private Cell Phone Data and Tracking Riders Through App

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, May 22, 2017 at 1:06 PM

A federal class-action lawsuit filed today in San Francisco by an Albany resident alleges that BART police have been secretly collecting data that can identify private cell phones and track the mobile devices of anyone who has downloaded the "BART Watch" app.

According to the lawsuit, the agency has been "secretly amassing tens of thousands of cellular identifiers linked to personally identifiable information."

See also: BART Riders Racially Profile via Smartphone App

The transit district rolled out the BART Watch app in August 2014 as a means for riders to report criminal activity and other concerns.

The app allows riders to send photos and exchange text messages with BART police in real time. Tens of thousands of members of the public have downloaded the app, which is made by Elerts, a Massachussetts technology firm that has provided similar software to other regional transit agencies, including Santa Clara and Sacramento.

Albany resident Pamela Moreno downloaded the BART Watch app in 2016 onto her cell phone and used it regularly while commuting. She says she wouldn't have originally installed the app if she knew it obtained information to identify and locate her phone. The Chicago-based Edelson law firm is representing Moreno in the lawsuit and seeking class-action status for others who downloaded the software.

According Moreno's attorneys, neither BART nor Elerts notified users that the app collects unique identifying information from their phones, or that it periodically tracks their geographic location.

BART officials say the allegations are untrue. "BART does not use ELERTS system to randomly track users," said district spokesperson Alicia Trost in a statement issued today. "An app’s user location information is only available if the user selects the option to share their location information. And then, BART only receives the user’s location when the user is reporting an incident."

Eve-Lynn Rapp, an attorney with the Edelson firm, said a team of forensic analysts reviewed the app's code to reveal the ways it clandestinely obtains data from people's cell phones and transmits it to the BART police. Rapp told the Express that the app sends identifying information and location data to BART any time a user simply opens it, not only when they choose to send an alert.

"They’re not being forthright as to what they’re telling people," said Rapp. "A reasonable user would think they’re collecting certain things when they’re making a police report, but people are less open to the collection of information simply because they have the app open."

The lawsuit also alleges that the data collected through the app can be matched with other information obtained by an IMSI catcher — a powerful cell-phone tracking and surveillance device that mimics a cell phone tower. IMSI catchers are more commonly known as a "Stingray" devices, and they can be used by law enforcement to locate a cell phone, and even intercept the contents of communications.

Trost said BART doesn't have a Stingray system.

The lawsuit against BART claims that the agency has violated the state Cellular Communications Interception Act, consumer laws, and the state privacy act.

BART's media-relations office didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the lawsuit.

But the district has been working with civil-liberty advocates on developing a comprehensive privacy ordinance which would govern the use of technologies such as the BART Watch app, and require periodic audits of surveillance tools and operations.

Last December, the BART board's technology subcommittee approved a general outline of the privacy ordinance, but the full board has yet to take up the matter.

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