SF supervisors OK controversial police surveillance measure

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday September 20, 2022
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The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a controversial surveillance camera ordinance Tuesday, though it faces a second vote next week. Photo: Screengrab
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a controversial surveillance camera ordinance Tuesday, though it faces a second vote next week. Photo: Screengrab

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday passed a measure allowing the San Francisco Police Department to request access to private, non-city entity surveillance cameras owned by individual households or businesses. The ordinance, authored by Mayor London Breed, faces a second and final vote next week.

The proposal by Police Chief William Scott, which was co-sponsored by gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, passed on a 7-4 vote. Supervisors Connie Chan (District 1), Dean Preston (District 5), Hillary Ronen (District 9), and Board President Shamann Walton (District 11), voted against the ordinance.

"Our residents and small businesses want us focused on keeping San Francisco safe for everyone who lives and works in the city," Breed stated in a news release. "This is a sensible policy that balances the need to give our police officers another tool to address significant public safety challenges and to hold those who break the law accountable. I want to thank my co-sponsors and Supervisor [Aaron] Peskin for working collaboratively with our office to get this legislation passed."

The San Francisco Police Department issued a statement that said it understands the civil liberty concerns.

"This policy ordinance defines limited and restricted circumstances where we can request live monitoring or historical footage from video surveillance technology already in place throughout the city," the statement read. "Furthermore, the department has considered the potential civil liberties impacts and has identified safeguards to ensure protections as mitigating measures."

The measure has been controversial from the start. After four hearings over two months in the rules committee, during which it picked up several amendments, the proposed ordinance was shaped into the version that was presented to supervisors. It was not, however, the version they voted upon as it picked up yet two more amendments in its hearing before the full board. Those were more related to safeguards for live monitoring.

Under the conditions outlined in the ordinance, temporary live monitoring will cease, and the connection will be cut off within 24 hours after the non-city entity has provided access to SFPD, according to Breed's release. The police department has considered and carved out safeguards relating to potential impacts to the right to privacy, loss of liberty, warrantless searches, and equal protections when making requests for nongovernmental camera footage or temporary live monitoring of non-city owned cameras, the release added.

Nonetheless, the amendments added just before the vote did little to assuage the fears of the four supervisors who voted against it. Most notably, Walton delivered a long explanation about why he believed the ordinance was dangerous.

"I do want to dispel the myth that police can't already access film from private cameras," he stated from the president's dais. The legislation could possibly result in violations of civil liberties and "the reality is that people have been violating civil liberties."

Walton said that as a Black man, he had plenty of reason to be suspicious of legislation such as this, and that the legislation could affect "the already slow pace of reforms we have in place."

"These types of policies are the type I fear the most, especially as a law-abiding Black man," he said. "Even with the provisions and best intentions, there's no such thing as immediately changing negative effects. We still have people locked up for things that are now legal."

Ronen, too, shared her misgivings. "Politics at the national level is becoming increasingly, and I don't think this is an exaggeration, fascist."

Chief Scott could use these extra powers in "a really reasonable way," she said, "but how long is he going to be police chief?"

But Ronen also noted that today, people are constantly tracked by their cellphones, internet sites they visit, and online purchases they make.

"We're not living 20-30 years ago," Ronen continued. "We are living today when we had a president who had no problem trampling on every single right enshrined to us in the constitution," she said, referring to the four-year presidency of Donald Trump.

The majority, however, felt strongly that sufficient guardrails were in place.

Mandelman said he believed the legislation was good and that the "right set of guardrails" was in place. While he felt the board was "getting it right" he said that he too, understood the anxiety of San Franciscans who feared the possibility of a government that might use this tech in an irresponsible way.

District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani said she didn't share the concerns of the ordinance's opponents "in the way" they had expressed them.

"Many safeguards have been put into the legislation," she said. "It's not a fantasy that we are short police officers. It's not propaganda..."

Prior amendments added

At a nearly two-hour hearing on the topic July 11, committee members voted to continue the proposal to July 18. Indeed, Chair Peskin (District 3), Vice Chair Mandelman, and Chan took up the matter a total of four times, during which Peskin added a number of 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.

At its final hearing in the rules committee September 12 — following the board's August recess — Peskin proposed two more 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.

Scott's proposal gives 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 measure adopted by the board would allow the department to request real-time access to third-party cameras without a warrant.

The police chief 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 told supervisors.

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, in particular, continually expressed her concerns — and doubts — about the measure. At the July 18 meeting, 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.

At the September 12 meeting of the rules committee, Chan expressed concern about whether the police department would even have sufficient staffing to perform live monitoring of cameras. The department is presently short more than 500 officers, and has argued that having access to cameras would help them cover more ground.

Chan, however, referred to a recent incident in which a man, allegedly stealing a catalytic converter, was allowed to walk by police who had been called to the scene by witnesses, and another incident on Clement Street in which an individual had a physical altercation with a shop employee. Nothing happened to that individual, either, she noted.

"I respectfully disagree about why live monitoring is better than having officers patrolling the spaces," she said, noting that, in those cases, live footage wasn't any more effective than had the police acquired the footage after the fact.

Civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California both expressed concerns about the measure, with the ACLU calling it "a formidable new threat to people's right to privacy."

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