SF police chief's surveillance plan advances to full board

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday September 13, 2022
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SF police chief's surveillance plan advances to full board

After its fourth appearance being heard at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, a controversial ordinance that would allow police to access private surveillance cameras was recommended to the full board on a 2-1 vote that included two amendments.

The committee has been reviewing a proposal by SFPD Chief William Scott, and sponsored by Mayor London Breed, that would amend Administrative Code Chapter 19(B) to outline 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.

The rules committee is comprised of Chair Aaron Peskin (District 3), gay Vice Chair Rafael Mandelman (District 8) and Connie Chan (District 1). The committee last took up the matter at its July 25 meeting [https://www.ebar.com/story.php?317566] before breaking for summer recess.

Chan, who has been skeptical of the plan, cast the lone no vote against recommending the proposal.

Scott's proposal would give SFPD free access to thousands of privately-owned surveillance cameras, with owners' permission, and the right to use the video footage as evidence. Presently, SFPD can request footage from cameras when it believes a crime has occurred. The proposed measure would allow the department to request real-time access to third-party cameras without a warrant.

The police chief has emphasized in earlier meetings 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 has told supervisors.

Peskin proposed two amendments. The first, a sunset clause that would expire after 15 months, allowing for a full year's worth of information to be logged for eventual review, and additional data logging.

Opposition to the proposed ordinance has been strong, however, and while it does appear to enjoy support among a wide swath of San Franciscans, particularly small business owners and many in the city's Chinese community, opposition has been more vocal and, if a poll and testimonials before the committee are any indication, more popular.

Chan has been most wary of the proposal and has continually voiced her concerns about it. What, she wondered, would be the measure of success if this ordinance were to pass?

"The measure of success is whether or not we are able to keep our community safe, whether or not we are able to apprehend those individuals involved in crime, especially violent crime, when you think about live monitoring ...," replied SFPD Assistant Chief David Lazar. "Imagine if we had the ability to ask a business owner if we can look through their camera's live monitoring between 4 and 6 in the afternoon, when we know that this crime is happening and, of course, I'm just making an example that actually isn't happening right now, but imagine if we're able to look through that video and watch what is going on in real time and then allocate our resources as necessary."

Chan insisted that having a physical police presence was better.

"I am in a space where I respectfully disagree about why live monitoring is better than having police officers patrolling the spaces," she said.

"We're not saying that live monitoring is better than having foot patrol or footbeats," Lazar replied. "Right now we're down 535 police officers in San Francisco, which should be a concern for everyone. We're not saying live monitoring replaces policing. We're saying that live monitoring is a tool that police officers could use within reason within the confines of policy with safeguards in place to make sure we're doing things legally, ethically, safeguarding the civil rights of everyone, having an additional tool to do policing."

This form of surveillance, he continued, is just one of the tools police need to do their job effectively.

But with staff shortages, replied Chan, "it makes me very curious about how effective and impactful that you will have staffing for live monitoring and, again, I am in a space where I am questioning the effectiveness of the tool and the strategy in this approach."

Police have access to historic footage, she pointed out, and do currently take advantage of that asset. But, she added, she's concerned about the "technology companies out there right now, preying on the situation..."

Cameras, such as those on driverless cars, are continually monitoring the city, Chan added.

"I am glad the voters in San Francisco have voted to ban facial recognition but that doesn't mean that it is just banning the city using facial recognition," she said. "That doesn't mean that facial recognition as a technology doesn't exist in our city. It actually, in fact, does and so having all sorts of types of surveillance technology continue to be developed, it just seems that, like, all it takes once we approve this, that it's really allowing the San Francisco Police Department being able to advocate and explore allowing other technology companies to continue to thrive and flood those technologies [into] San Francisco for practice, both for individuals and business owners."

There seem to be concerns not only from the Bar Association of San Francisco, but from the city's police commission, as well, she pointed out.

On September 1, the bar association wrote to the Board of Supervisors expressing its opposition to the proposed measure stating, "It does not appear to be unduly burdensome to require SFPD to seek an expedited warrant should it become necessary to gain access to desired camera footage."

One week later, Police Commission Vice President Cindy Elias and Commissioner Kevin Benedicto wrote a letter requesting more time to consider the proposal. Citing great concern about the proposal's impact on "civil liberties, constitutional rights, and privacy," they asked the Board of Supervisors "to refrain from final passage of the Proposed Policy until we can comprehensively and carefully analyze its impact on SFPD's policies, procedures, and the community at large, while ensuring this policy aligns with police reform efforts."

A proposal by San Francisco Police Chief William Scott to let SFPD use privately owned surveillance cameras will move to the full Board of Supervisors for consideration. Photo: Cynthia Laird

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