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Castro CBD postpones surveillance camera vote after Milk club criticism

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A screengrab of the Castro Street Cam the afternoon of October 9.
A screengrab of the Castro Street Cam the afternoon of October 9.  

The Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District board postponed a vote Thursday about whether to accept private funds to install surveillance cameras in the neighborhood, after the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club strongly urged the group to reject the initiative.

The Milk club had sent a letter to the CBD just hours before its board meeting, asking that the camera item be rejected or at the very least, a vote postponed.

"Surveillance technology has been used repeatedly in the Castro to target and harass the LGBTQ community," the club's executive board wrote in the October 8 letter.

Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is the executive director of the CBD, responded to the letter in a statement to the Bay Area Reporter October 9 in which she wrote "as frontline stewards for our neighborhood, Castro CBD welcomes stakeholder input from everyone in our community. Consideration of the SafeCity camera program came from concerned residents and a real need to address public safety issues in our district."

As the B.A.R. previously reported, the Castro neighborhood has been plagued by petty crime in recent months, from break-ins to window vandalism.

"Since COVID we've seen a real uptick in concern from neighbors around public safety issues," Aiello told the B.A.R. in an October 9 phone interview subsequent to her statement. "People don't feel comfortable in the district and that is a concern for us. We have launched a public safety initiative."

One proposed part of that initiative is cameras. Aiello said "residents in the Castro" on the neighborhood social media website Nextdoor were excited about a New York Times article that appeared in July about tech mogul Chris Larsen, who is paying CBDs to install cameras around San Francisco.

"I don't know if it was a proposal, it was more of a 'let's look at this,'" Aiello said, adding that Larsen would, through his foundation, give a grant of $695,000 for the installation and maintenance over two years of 125 cameras in the Castro neighborhood.

Larsen did not respond to a request for comment.

Aiello told the B.A.R. that after the Milk club's letter, the CBD board moved the discussion about whether to accept the grant back to its services committee where it will be heard October 22 at 10 a.m. That committee will decide how to conduct community outreach, Aiello said.

"We want to make sure if it does happen that people feel safe," Aiello said. "The whole point is to feel safe."

Aiello said there would be instituted policies as to who would have access to the footage and that police would only be allowed to see video recordings if they had a police report. Hopefully, she said, merchants would replace their currently-installed cameras with these cameras.

According to Hoodline, Larsen has paid for over 1,000 cameras surveilling people in the Fisherman's Wharf, Lower Polk, Mid-Market, Tenderloin, Union Square, and Japantown neighborhoods. Applied Video Solutions would maintain them.

Aiello said the location of the cameras would depend upon police advice and which property owners would be willing to have them on their buildings.

"Beyond deterring bad actors and providing evidence for investigators, this program creates a platform for community empowerment with innovative tools to take ownership over public safety," Aiello's statement continued. "An unbiased witness with stringent privacy protocols, the program will support broader placemaking and service delivery strategies, especially during the current public health crisis. We will continue to outreach to the community about this program. No decisions have been made at this point. We work for the Castro and will continue to listen to its needs so that together we can shape a vibrant community."

The Milk club sent its letter to the CBD late Thursday afternoon.

"The letter ... was written promptly when we discovered that the Castro/Upper Market CBD would be voting on the matter this evening. As you will probably discover soon, they postponed that vote in order to engage in further community outreach," Lee Hepner, who sits on the club's board, wrote to the B.A.R. late October 8.

"This whole concept is an affront to the Castro values that have made the neighborhood a beacon of diversity, refuge, and freedom of expression. I'm grateful that the CBD put a pause on this ill-advised proposal before rubber-stamping it, and I think we should expect nothing less than a robust community-driven process to determine the future of the Castro," Hepner stated.

Hepner, who clarified his "engagement on this issue" was solely as a board member and not as an aide to District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin "out of an abundance of caution," said that surveillance technology is used to intimidate.

"The notion that this sophisticated surveillance network will make us more safe is naive and misinformed," he wrote. "Instead it's been used to target peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in San Francisco."

Earlier this week, KQED reported that a lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city, alleging police illegally conducted mass surveillance on the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in the late spring by commandeering private security cameras in the Union Square area.

The Milk club's letter references the lawsuit (lead plaintiff Hope Williams sits on the Milk club board, the letter noted) and the historic use of surveillance cameras to target the LGBTQ community.

"In the late 1980s, surveillance technology was used to target ACT UP members who were protesting government inaction as tens of thousands of San Franciscans were dying of AIDS-related illness," the letter states. "In the mid-1990s, SFPD resorted to the use of surveillance technology to shut down Dennis Peron's Cannabis Buyers Club.

"The installation of private surveillance systems is part of a broader movement to expand police power and — even more troubling — to promote the privatization of police without any transparency or oversight. In the wake of calls to defund the police, we have seen the expansion of private surveillance networks and the rise of armed private security firms," the letter states.

"We love the Castro. It is an international beacon for self-expression and a breeding ground for progressive ideas," the letter continues. "It is also the Milk club's political and social home, and we have a vested interest in its future. We also understand the challenges of the small business community and count many small business owners in and around the Castro among our membership. We hope that together we can find a path forward that allows for small business to rebound from the pandemic and to help Castro residents feel safer without resorting to the dangerous use of this surveillance technology."

The letter was also sent to gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, genderqueer Castro LGBTQ Cultural District manager Tina Aguirre; straight Castro Merchants board President Masood Samereie; and gay GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick.

Of those, only Samereie responded to requests for comment.

"Castro Merchants' mission is to support and nurture a vibrant business corridor that benefits not only the merchants and organizations that choose our neighborhood to pursue their dreams, but also the consumers that shop here — residents and tourists alike," Samereie wrote October 9. "We see the benefits increased surveillance in our community represents, particularly during these challenging times, but also understand very well the challenges that [it] represents in terms of privacy and data security."

Samereie wrote that police say crime rates "tend to go down when cameras are visibly present."

"We applaud the CBD for proactively looking for solutions to make the Castro a safer and more prosperous place to do business and encourage its board to carefully review the data, expert opinion and business/public commentary before making any decisions," he concluded.

There is, of course, the Castro Street Cam at Cliff's Variety on Castro Street, which is available online. Terry Asten Bennett of Cliff's Variety told the B.A.R. October 9 that "both sides of legal cases have requested footage in the past" and it has been handed over.

"We have been subpoenaed ... to verify the legitimacy of the footage," she wrote, adding that she has been subpoenaed about four times total but has never had to show up to court. "Them asking for video is not very frequent. The most memorable time we were asked [was] when the guy drove into Rossi's and then down the street."

While Cliff's houses the cameras and the digital video recorder, they are owned by the San Francisco Bay Times. Co-publisher Betty Sullivan declined to comment, saying she didn't "want to be in your story."

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