Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

As one of its final acts in 2020, the outgoing San Diego City Council gave city employees permission to buy cell-phone hacking technology — as well as drones and rapid response vehicles — without realizing it.

On Dec. 8, Council members unanimously agreed to apply for and accept $16.9 million worth of federal anti-terrorism grants. The item was placed on the consent agenda, without any additional information about how the money would be spent. None of the officials asked.

But even if they had pressed the staff, City Council members would not have gotten much information at an open meeting. The regional law enforcement groups responsible for divvying up anti-terrorism dollars every year have shielded their requests and deliberations from public disclosure.

Voice of San Diego, however, has obtained a wish list of tactical police and fire gear from agencies across the county showing that they hoped to spend the money on everything from radios to robots, cameras to communication systems, as well as training and conferences for employees.

It also includes $248,490 for services with a company called Cellebrite, which allows first responders to extract data from locked and encrypted devices that might be relevant to an investigation while in the field. In its marketing materials, the company offers public safety personnel the ability to access the cell phones of victims and witnesses without having to take the device and possibly wait weeks for a search warrant.

“Sources such as CCTV, wearables, smart home & [Internet of Things] devices, drones, cars, and even gaming systems, are being used by criminals more frequently to mask illegal activity,” reads one company report. “This is why leveraging technologies that can access the most data sources, and technologies such as artificial intelligence to shorten the amount of time it takes to generate actionable insights, are so important.”

The city’s relationship with Cellebrite is not new. Other public records show that the San Diego Police Department’s crime lab has been using the company’s services since at least 2016.

A spokesman for Mayor Todd Gloria’s office declined to comment, citing relevant litigation.

In a statement to VOSD, Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe said she understands that police need to be prepared for emergencies but looks forward to a more detailed analysis of anti-terrorism funding at a future hearing. She chairs the city’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee.

“I share the community’s concerns about how our region is curating certain types of equipment, and the lack of transparency around this process,” she said. “In our efforts to build trust between law enforcement and San Diegans, we must be honest and forthcoming about how this funding will be spent.”

Although Montgomery Steppe didn’t raise any opposition to the grant application in December 2020 — she, in fact, voted with her colleagues to move it along — she’s gone on record in the past with her criticisms.

In November 2019, she questioned city staff over the distribution of anti-terrorism funds. She said she’d seen a list of items that law enforcement wanted and wasn’t comfortable offering her support until she had a better sense of how the gear would be used and whether those purposes aligned with the city’s larger values.

“I don’t know where the ‘targeted areas’ are,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what ‘terrorism preparedness’ means.”

She ended up voting no in 2019. The rest of the Council voted yes, but several members echoed her concerns and expressed support for holding committee-level hearings on the grant application in the future. Then-Councilman Chris Ward stressed that the current closed-door process prevented officials from knowing how technology was being deployed within communities and whether it was striking the right balance between security and privacy.

“Our office is happy to meet with you individually, but this is not something we would discuss in open session,” said Katherine Jackson, program manager for San Diego’s Office of Homeland Security.

Ward didn’t participate in the vote last month because he’d already been sworn-in as a member of the California Assembly.

Former Council President Georgette Gómez told VOSD that she was frustrated by the way city staff every year would drop the grant application at the last minute and then argue that other governments around the region were dependent on San Diego moving the process along without delay. She said she remembered telling a high-ranking staffer in then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office: “We gotta stop docketing things that aren’t vetted and stop using the excuse that you must do it just because we’re running against the clock.”

The documents obtained by VOSD show that more than a third of the requests in the new grant application came from city departments. About 11 percent of the proposed expenditures were set aside for county departments, including the sheriff. Another 11 percent were for ARJIS, a criminal justice information-sharing system and a division of SANDAG. The remaining requests came from cities, universities and other public agencies across the region.

The total price tag: $21 million.

In the end, though, the wish list of police and fire gear is just that — a wish list — and there’s no guarantee that all of the funding requests will be fulfilled. The amount of money distributed locally is significant, but it’s also capped based on the size of the grant.

Instead, the various projects and pieces of equipment are scored and ranked in proportion to how well they conform to the region’s homeland security goals. Close to the top of the list for the current grant cycle is $100,000 for services with Palantir, a highly controversial company founded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel that collates various streams of data about people to analyze behavior and make predictions on how individuals might act.

Palantir’s software was originally purchased by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and gifted to the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center, a federal organization that assesses regional threats and provides state and local authorities with intelligence. It’s not clear, though, how local agencies use the software, and San Diego police have declined to release records that might shed light on its investigative value.

The official name of the grant program is the Urban Area Security Initiative, and its organizational chart is a bureaucratic maze, all housed under the San Diego County Unified Disaster Council. The grant program is managed, however, by the city of San Diego’s Office of Homeland Security, which acts as a pass-through for anti-terrorism dollars that originate at the federal level and trickle down from the state.

A subcommittee known as the Regional Technology Partnership makes the initial recommendations for how to spend the money locally. Those recommendations are then approved by the Urban Area Working Group, which is at the heart of the process, with police and fire representatives from each of the 18 cities and the county in San Diego.

Secrecy is built into the overall structure, and every major government in the region has a voice and a stake in the distribution of anti-terrorism funds, not just the city of San Diego.

La Prensa, a bilingual newspaper, reported last month on the Urban Area Working Group’s existence, estimating that it had divvied up hundreds of millions of dollars since its formation in 2008. Just last year, El Cajon sought an armored personnel vehicle, known as a Bearcat.

One day before the story dropped, attorney Cory Briggs filed a lawsuit on behalf of the newspaper’s publisher alleging that the Urban Area Working Group had violated California’s Brown Act, which requires public entities to hold open, accessible meetings. The group doesn’t appear to post its agendas online, and its charter explicitly states that any materials it “provided for or prepared as a result” of its meetings are exempt from disclosure.

“That’s not how the Public Records Act works,” said David Snyder, a lawyer and executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Agencies have an obligation to review requests and then decide whether the records are exempt or not.”

Specifically, the Urban Area Working Group cites two exemptions in state law to justify the black hole that surrounds its meetings. One allows agencies to withhold terrorism assessments — perhaps an internal report revealing the likelihood of a dam being destroyed by explosives. The other allows agencies to withhold information about critical infrastructure, but only if it’s “voluntarily submitted” to California’s Office of Emergency Services.

The question of whether the group is violating the Brown Act is a little more complicated. It depends, Snyder said, on whether it was created by a larger body and holds regular meetings. It was, and it does, annually. But there’s a potential snag if the members of the group aren’t also a part of the San Diego Unified Disaster Council. Those questions will likely be resolved in the courtroom.

Snyder believes that the Urban Area Working Group should be subject to the Brown Act.

“The information they’re exchanging and the records they’re creating have a pretty significant impact on the people of the county,” he said, “and I think the purpose of this body and the actions it undertakes are exactly the kind of things that the Brown Act is there to make sure happens.”

Whatever the merits of La Prensa’s legal argument, the newspaper’s actions in mid-December derailed the current grant application, at least temporarily.

On the same day the San Diego City Council signed off on another round of anti-terrorism funding, the Regional Technology Partnership was scheduled to meet to begin formalizing its recommendations. The Urban Area Working Group was scheduled to meet Dec. 16 for a final discussion but canceled at the last minute.

Some officials who’ve been approving anti-terrorism expenditures for years are only now discovering that the Urban Area Working Group exists. National City Councilman Ron Morrison said he hadn’t heard of it until a couple weeks ago, but he anticipates a broader conversation will soon take place in a closed session with his city’s legal counsel. He also said he didn’t understand why the group felt the need to withhold what sounded like public documents.

“I don’t know what would be terribly secretive,” he said. “You’re not dealing with compromising agents. You’re procuring equipment.”

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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