SFPD chief's surveillance proposal to get more review by supervisors' panel

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Monday July 18, 2022
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San Francisco Police Chief William Scott faces more delay on his surveillance camera proposal, which a Board of Supervisors committee will consider again July 25. Photo: Cynthia Laird <br>
San Francisco Police Chief William Scott faces more delay on his surveillance camera proposal, which a Board of Supervisors committee will consider again July 25. Photo: Cynthia Laird

A proposal to allow the San Francisco Police Department to make use of non-city owned surveillance cameras is shaping up to be a highly contested issue, as well as one that is going to take up more meeting time as it wends its way through the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

At its second meeting on the topic Monday, July 18, the supervisors' rules committee again delayed taking action and said it would continue discussing the issue next week. With the supervisors set to hold their last meeting July 26 before their summer recess, it could mean the policy may not go before the full board until the fall.

As the Bay Area Reporter reported last week, members of the rules committee are reviewing 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.

Scott's 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.

After a nearly two-hour hearing on the topic July 11, committee members voted to continue the proposal to July 18. Indeed, Chair Supervisor Aaron Peskin (District 3), Vice Chair gay Supervisor Rafael Mandelman (District 8), and Supervisor Connie Chan (District 1) took up the matter again this week for nearly an hour and a half, during which Peskin said he was adding three proposed amendments to the mix. Those changes would address allowing police to monitor cameras in emergencies; defaulting to state laws pertaining to privacy standards; allowing police access to historical footage; and limiting the sharing of information with federal agencies, particularly around areas of immigration, and creating something akin to a digital sanctuary.

Copies of the text of the amendments were not available from Peskin's office at press time, according to Peskin's Chief of Staff Sunny Angulo, but "will be soon."

Committee members heard more from Scott, however, who emphasized how access to non-city entity cameras could assist an already short-staffed police force. Positioning cops on one corner to deter or catch drug dealing, for example, only sends perpetrators to another corner and SFPD doesn't have the staffing to keep up, he told supervisors.

"We're constantly playing this game of whack-a-mole," Scott said. "This is not an efficient use of resources."

With cameras, he continued, SFPD could monitor busy areas with fewer officers. Having footage of the goings-on could help bolster their cases against suspects.

Questions about which cameras they might be accessing cropped up, as well, particularly those of the city's numerous community benefit districts that operate hundreds of highly advanced cameras around San Francisco, noted Peskin. The CBDs are quasi-city entities, he stated. Where would they fall under these guidelines, he wondered.

The Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District nixed a proposal for surveillance cameras in 2021, as the B.A.R. previously reported. After heated debate, a proposal to place more than 125 security cameras in San Francisco's Castro LGBTQ neighborhood died last June.

At the hearing, Chan cautiously wondered how the new policies, if approved, would be implemented. No one has spelled out the steps it would take, she said.

"It's better we do it right rather than fast," she added.

Far more enthusiastic was Supervisor Ahsha Safaí of District 11 who, though not on the rules committee, had come to sit in on the proceedings.

Stating just how beneficial he thought the proposal might be for the city, Safaí said he opposed putting the matter on the ballot stating, "I think this needs to go through the legislative process."

Having real-time access to crimes as they happen is very important, Safaí said, and he's in full support of allowing it to happen in "targeted situations."

Both the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Electronic Frontier Foundation have come out strongly against the proposal, with EFF noting that it would "drastically increase" police surveillance powers in the city. The proposal, too, would allow police to live monitor what are referred to as significant events, such as political protests and religious gatherings thereby "implicating" people attending those events.

"This concern is far from hypothetical," according to a statement on the EFF web site. "EFF and the ACLU of Northern California sued the city after SFPD used a business district's camera network to live-monitor protests for 8 days following the police murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020."

The ACLU expects the case to be heard by the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco. It lost initially in San Francisco Superior Court, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

In a phone interview with the B.A.R. following the meeting, Mandelman said he was pretty comfortable with SFPD's request.

"The things they're asking for don't seem unreasonable to me," he said.

When supervisors opened the floor to public comment, they had plenty of people waiting to speak their minds. Nearly 60 people were queued up on the phone lines, including several who, supporting police access to privately-owned security cameras, addressed the chamber in Cantonese but ended their statements with an encouraging "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Still the majority — just over half of the callers — urged supervisors to reject the proposal, citing concerns about civil liberties. Several called it a "massive overreach of authority" while one caller warned, "This is fascism, make no mistake about it."

Supporters cautioned that allowing drug dealers to continue plying their wares on the streets was only aiding drug cartels, while others cited their own elderly relatives who, they said, were now afraid to leave the safe confines of their homes.

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