Oversight bodies in San Francisco on Tuesday voted in favor of a trial run allowing police to monitor private security cameras in real time under 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 protection. The real-time monitoring capability was requested by San Francisco Mayor London Breed and backed by merchants and residents who say police officers need more tools to combat drug dealing and retail theft, which they say is hurting the city’s quality of life. . It is temporary and will end in 15 months.
The vote was 7-4, with some observers surprised that the politically liberal San Francisco’s board would consider giving more powers to law enforcement, especially during protests. Others countered, saying they were tired of sophisticated criminal networks taking advantage of San Francisco’s lax attitude towards shoplifting and other property crimes.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a privacy advocate who successfully passed legislation in 2019 to ban the use of facial recognition software by the San Francisco police and other city departments, said they worked hard to agree on security measures, including strict reporting requirements on when live surveillance was used and if it improved safety.
“I realized that for some this is anathema,” Peskin said. “I’m ready to try.”
Across the country, police are increasingly using private surveillance equipment as a way to deter and investigate crime. Most use is voluntary, although a new regulation in Houston requires certain businesses — bars, nightclubs and convenience stores — to record off-premise at all times and share footage with police upon request.
In San Francisco, the new policy comes after years of a turbulent pandemic, in which footage of rampant shoplifting and violent attacks on older Asian Americans went viral, stoking feelings of unrest and lawlessness.
The police can only conduct live surveillance for 24 hours and only in genuine emergencies where lives are at stake or during a specific criminal investigation. They can also watch large or high-profile events live to decide where to send employees. Permission must be obtained from the individual, business, or public district to access their cameras. Only outdoor areas can be controlled.
The trial period will last 15 months, Peskin said, allowing supervisors to review a year’s worth of data before they decide whether to extend the pilot program, tweak it, or drop it entirely.
More than two dozen groups called on the board to ban live surveillance except in emergencies and create an independent audit process to evaluate the program. Organizations including the ACLU of Northern California said the policy change would result in widespread policing that would disproportionately affect African Americans, the homeless and the poor.
Board chairman Shamann Walton, an African American who voted against the law, 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 a completely different continent,” he said.
Mayor Breed thanked the board, saying that live surveillance will allow police to “respond to issues around organized crime, homicide, gun violence” and even officer misconduct.
In December, the mayor called for a crackdown on illegal and drug trafficking in Tenderloin, one of the city’s poorest and most drug-infested areas. At the time, she announced that she would be pushing for legislation to allow law enforcement access to real-time security camera video.
Despite her harsh words – Breed said it’s time to be “less tolerant of all the bulls that destroyed our city” – the area is still unsettled.
In June, progressive San Francisco attorney Chesa Buden was fired from the district attorney’s office in a rare recall and replaced by Brooke Jenkins, who vowed to prosecute drug dealers and other criminals who see San Francisco as an easy target. She supports politics.
The proposal needs a second vote to become law, which is usually formal and takes place the following week. Two members of the five-member police commission asked the board to delay the final vote until they had a chance to consider the law.
Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed.
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