SF supes delay surveillance vote on SFPD chief's proposal

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday July 12, 2022
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San Francisco Police Chief William Scott wants a surveillance policy that will enable officers to access privately-owned security cameras with owners' permission. Photo: Cynthia Laird
San Francisco Police Chief William Scott wants a surveillance policy that will enable officers to access privately-owned security cameras with owners' permission. Photo: Cynthia Laird

The San Francisco Police Department could have access to sweeping new surveillance opportunities if a proposal allowing police to access surveillance cameras operated by private citizens and businesses — such as a store security camera — is passed.

After a nearly two-hour hearing on the topic, July 11, the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee voted 3-0 to continue the proposal to its next meeting July 18.

The committee heard a proposal by SFPD Chief William Scott that would amend Administrative Code Chapter 19(B), which outlines the requirements that city agencies must meet before they acquire or use new surveillance technologies. Currently, police are limited in how they access video from surveillance cameras.

As it's currently written, city departments "must obtain Board of Supervisors approval by ordinance of a Surveillance Technology Policy before: (1) seeking funds for Surveillance Technology; (2) acquiring or borrowing new Surveillance Technology; (3) using new or existing Surveillance Technology for a purpose, in a manner, or in a location not specified in a Board-approved Surveillance Technology ordinance; (4) entering into agreement with a non-City entity to acquire, share, or otherwise use Surveillance Technology; or (5) entering into an oral or written agreement under which a non-City entity or individual regularly provides the department with data or information acquired through the entity's use of Surveillance Technology."

The proposal would give SFPD free access to literally thousands of privately-owned surveillance cameras, with owners' permission, and the right to use the video footage as evidence.

Speaking before committee members Chair Supervisor Aaron Peskin (District 3), Vice Chair gay Supervisor Rafael Mandelman (District 8), and Supervisor Connie Chan (District 1), Scott made his case, noting there were two events in San Francisco that precipitated the request: the mass smash-and-grab robberies of luxury stores in Union Square last December and the city's ongoing fentanyl crisis, which has so far led to the deaths of more than 230 people this year.

The robberies in Union Square were caught on private surveillance cameras, Scott said, but could not be accessed because they didn't meet the threshold exigency that exists in the current policy. As for the fentanyl overdoses, particularly in the Civic Center and Tenderloin neighborhoods near City Hall, Scott said he believes "that thoughtful use of surveillance will enhance this police department's ability to turn the tide on what's going on in this city with that issue."

At the beginning of the meeting, Peskin told committee members that there are "some misconceptions in the public — this is not an expansion of surveillance technology. It's actually the first time we've had a public transparent consideration of exigent use of surveillance technology."

Nonetheless, the proposal has civil libertarian groups worried. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California called the move "a formidable new threat to people's right to privacy."

In a statement on its website, the ACLU said the SFPD's "long history of using cameras and other surveillance systems to spy on activists and social justice organizations led to massive community support for the city's current surveillance technology ordinance."

The civil rights group noted that SFPD was caught once already "using a network of over 300 private cameras to spy on thousands of people following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020."

The ACLU sued and expects that case to be heard by the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco. It lost its case in San Francisco Superior Court, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

Scott argued that the proposal enhances security for San Franciscans, and that SFPD understands the concerns about civil liberties and privacy.

"We definitely understand that there is a balance between what we need to do in this city with private surveillance cameras and the constitutional privacy that we enjoy in this country," he said.

Live monitoring cameras in areas where there are patterns of criminal behavior "as it's occurring" would give police a "better chance of apprehending those committing those acts," Scott said.

"The notion there is that you think something bad is going to happen," said Mandelman. "It's not super useful to have police there, obviously watching what is happening. But you want to be able to respond in real time because someone has showed up... once that person shows up you know that someone is going to get shot."

"Correct," said Scott, who explained such abilities would help police be able to respond by upping deployment to that area.

"Authorizing this ordinance," Scott said, "will provide the necessary temporary access and tools necessary to solve crimes related to homicides, gun violence, retail theft, and drug dealing similar to neighboring cities, this legislation will provide an opportunity to gather independent evidence relevant to criminal investigations."

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