San Francisco police get real-time access to private cameras

By JANIE HAR, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco supervisors voted Tuesday for a trial allowing police to monitor private surveillance cameras in real time in certain circumstances, despite strong objections from civil liberties groups alarmed by the potential impact on privacy.

San Francisco, like many places across the country, struggles to balance public safety with constitutional protections. The ability to monitor in real time was requested by San Francisco Mayor London Breed and backed by merchants and residents who say police need more tools to fight drug trafficking and theft retail that they say have tainted the city’s quality of life. It is temporary and will end in 15 months.

The vote was 7-4, with some supervisors surprised that San Francisco’s politically liberal board of directors is considering granting more powers to law enforcement in a city celebrating its activism. Others pushed back, saying they were tired of sophisticated criminal networks taking advantage of San Francisco’s lax attitude toward retail theft and other property crimes.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a privacy advocate who successfully passed legislation in 2019 banning the use of facial recognition software by San Francisco police and other city departments, said they had worked hard to negotiate safeguards, including strict reporting requirements when live monitoring was used and if it improved security.

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“I realized that was anathema to some,” Peskin said. “I’m ready to try.”

Police use of private surveillance equipment has intensified across the country as a means of deterring and investigating crime. Most uses are voluntary, as is the case in San Francisco, although a new ordinance in Houston requires certain businesses – bars, nightclubs and convenience stores – to record outside their premises at all times and share images with font on request.

In San Francisco, the new policy comes after years of a tumultuous pandemic in which images of rampant shoplifting and brutal attacks on elderly Asian Americans have gone viral, fueling sentiment of uneasiness and anarchy.

The police can only monitor live for up to 24 hours, and only in genuine emergencies where lives are at stake or as part of a specific criminal investigation. They can also live monitor important or high-profile events to decide where to deploy agents. Permission must be received from the individual, business or community district to access their cameras. Only outdoor spaces can be monitored.

The trial period will last 15 months, giving supervisors about a year of data to review before deciding whether to extend the pilot program, modify it or scrap it altogether, Peskin said.

The ACLU of Northern California was among more than two dozen groups that called on supervisors to ban live monitoring except in emergencies, saying it would have a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other vulnerable communities.

Board chairman Shamann Walton, who is African American and voted against the legislation, said police already have the tools to request video footage from individuals and make arrests.

“I know the thought process is, ‘just trust us, just trust the police department.’ But the reality is that people have been violating civil liberties ever since my ancestors were brought here from an entirely, entirely different continent,” he said.

Mayor Breed thanked the board, saying live surveillance would allow police “to respond to challenges posed by organized criminal activity, homicides, gun violence,” and even officer misconduct.

In December, the mayor called for a crackdown on illegal drug sales and trafficking in the Tenderloin, one of the city’s poorest and most drug-infested neighborhoods. At the time, she announced that she would seek legislation allowing law enforcement to access real-time surveillance video.

Despite his harsh words – Breed said it’s time to be “less tolerant of all the bulls – who destroyed our town” – the neighborhood remains troubled.

In June, progressive San Francisco prosecutor Chesa Boudin was ousted from the district attorney’s office in a rare recall and replaced by Brooke Jenkins, who supports the trial program.

The proposal requires a second vote to become law, which is usually superficial and given the following week. Two members of the five-member police commission asked the council to suspend the final vote until they had a chance to review the legislation.

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