Police officers at University of California and California State campuses could soon be able to wire-tap and record telephone and cell-phone calls made by students and faculty on campus. Assembly Bill 992, proposed by Orange County Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, gives campus officers the same rights as local law enforcement to use surveillance without consent to gather evidence relating to violent crimes.
Critics of the bill worry that giving campus cops such powers means an unchecked ability to monitor any campus activities, including protests and activist meetings.
Benjamin Balthaser, a graduate student at UCSD, believes the bill is an attempt to further undermine students' right to privacy. "This comes at a time when university administrations have been cracking down on campus organizing groups," Balthaser said. "This has been happening all over the country. There has been intense surveillance of lecturers and campus activist organizations, and you keep hearing of groups being investigated or protests being shut down."
On May 19, the state Assembly voted 65-3 in favor of AB 992, despite objections by the ACLU and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. The latter group is concerned that campus police would not be held accountable if they misused their powers. Those who currently enjoy surveillance authority, like district attorneys and county sheriffs, can be removed via the ballot box if the public believes their officers have acted improperly. Currently, UC and CSU officers must get permission from the district attorney before conducting investigations.
Assemblymember Spitzer believes that removing the red tape will allow campus cops to aggressively pursue sex offenders.
In a statement prepared for the bill's debate, Spitzer, who did not return CityBeat's phone calls, wrote, "The omission [of UC and CSU officers] is most damaging in investigations of date rape or other forms of non-consensual sex with which [university] police are commonly confronted. Since such investigations usually involve one person's word against another's, the ability to record a conversation without the suspect's consent is many times key to bringing a case forward."
Balthaser is not swayed: "Lawmakers are basically using sexual assault as a pretense to curb civil liberties. Theoretically, if you could wiretap people and we lived in a totalitarian society, there would be more security. To me that's just a pipe dream."
UCSD Chief of Police Orville King believes giving university officers these powers is essential because campus crimes are becoming more like the crimes surveillance-authorized county and municipal authorities face.
"We have 24,000-25,000 students on this campus with a population of about 40,000. That makes us larger than most small cities," he said. "We provide all the law-enforcement services, and my feeling, along with the other UC chiefs, is that the same authority granted elsewhere should extend on a campus with regards to the way we enforce the law."
King said the legislation wouldn't really affect how his department conducts serious criminal investigations.
"At the present time," he said, "we need the approval of the local district attorney, who is right here in San Diego, so it is not really as critical for us, and I really don't see it necessarily changing the way we do business here. It is just one unnecessary hoop that can be avoided."
The UCSD activist group Students and Scholars Mobilized Against Repressive Times (SMART) held a forum in late May to address AB 992 and crackdowns on campus protest groups and liberal lecturers. The event attracted more than 60 students and prompted heated debate.
"UCSD is a very apathetic campus, so we really struck a nerve," said SMART member Scott Boehm. "We've been seeing the intimidation of campus groups, such as counter-recruitment groups being restricted to free-speech zones. A few weeks ago, we saw a lot of police intimidation at the budget-cut protests at SDSU and even brutalization during the protests at UC Santa Cruz. We would really like to see a UC-wide response, a major conference or something for the middle of next year to send a clear message that we are against these tactics."AB 992 is scheduled for a Senate hearing on June 16.