SF supervisors' panel pushes 4th surveillance hearing to Sept.

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Monday July 25, 2022
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San Francisco Police Chief's surveillance camera proposal will get at least one more hearing in September by the Board of Supervisors' Rules Committee. Photo: Cynthia Laird
San Francisco Police Chief's surveillance camera proposal will get at least one more hearing in September by the Board of Supervisors' Rules Committee. Photo: Cynthia Laird

A proposal to allow the San Francisco Police Department to make use of non-city owned surveillance cameras had its third hearing by the Board of Supervisors' Rules Committee Monday but, after two significant amendments put forward by District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, there's going to be a fourth. Given that the supervisors are leaving for their summer recess in August, that meeting won't happen until September 12.

As the Bay Area Reporter reported two weeks ago, members of the rules committee are reviewing a proposal by SFPD Chief William Scott and sponsored by Mayor London Breed 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. The chief of police 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 told supervisors.

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

Taking advantage of surveillance cameras already in place, he continued, could help SFPD monitor busy areas with fewer officers. Having footage of the goings-on could help bolster their cases against suspects.

Peskin proposed two amendments to the measure. The amendments, which were supported by his two fellow committee members — gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan — arose from discussions Peskin said he had with representatives from Breed's office, Scott, and other colleagues.

"Two things are required," Peskin told the committee, "a sunset date in one year. After the enactment of the policy it will be incumbent on this Board of Supervisors or it will terminate, and it requires a much more robust reporting requirement with four quarterly reports. It very carefully seeks to narrow the use of third-party surveillance cameras in the public realm."

Chan spoke in favor of the amendments, saying she was happy to see them brought up.

"Having the opportunity with quarterly reports and sunset will help understand what can and cannot be done," she said, calling the measure "overwhelming to tackle and understand."

But opposition to the measure, as a poll released May 3 by Tulcin Research on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California indicates, is very high. Among 372 likely San Francisco voters, 60% opposed the measure, while only 34% said they support it. (The margin of error was plus or minus 5 points.) Even at Monday's meeting more than 75 people called in during public comment and of those, at least 43 speakers condemned the proposal.

While several opponents described the measure as "reckless overreach," others worried about SFPD's record on working with the city's minority communities.

"I feel like there's an element of racial profiling and SFPD will not be held accountable," stated one caller.

"It's a threat to fundamental rights and SFPD has a history of violating people's rights," said another.

Significantly, nearly half of the calls of support for the measure came from the city's Chinese residents. Eighteen Cantonese-speaking San Franciscans, smarting from the dramatic increase in attacks on Asians since the COVID pandemic began in March 2020, called in to Monday's meeting to express their support for the proposal. Their statements were translated for the committee members, two of whom are not Chinese.

"Many crimes were not reported because of language barriers," said one Cantonese speaker.

"We don't feel very safe to head out to Chinatown or other parts of town," said another. "The right to privacy is very important, public safety should be the first priority."

Tenderloin activist David Elliot Lewis called in to voice his support, as well. A 16-year resident of the neighborhood, he told the committee that he did not feel safe in the Tenderloin but did support Peskin's amendment to include a sunset provision on the measure.

Randall Scott, executive director of the Fisherman's Wharf Community Benefit District, also called in to the meeting to state his support for the measure.

"In my professional opinion, the people of San Francisco have nothing to fear from SFPD watching them on the streets in person or on camera," he said.

The measure also found backing among the city's business leaders. A joint statement released by San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Hotel Council, SF Partnership, and the Golden Gate Restaurant Association called for the rules committee members to support the proposal.

"This legislation is a critical step toward improving safety for small business owners, employees, and all San Franciscans," the statement read. "It strategically uses technological advances to strengthen city services and provide the necessary tools for SFPD to solve our most violent, harmful, and persistent crimes."

While the proposal has drawn severe criticism from civil libertarian organizations such as the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation, to say nothing of numerous private citizens who have called in during the hearings to voice their concerns, at least one supervisor appears to support it.

Mandelman previously told the B.A.R. "The things [SFPD is] asking for don't seem unreasonable to me."

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