SF supervisors OK measure expanding police access to private surveillance cameras

Police can now have live access to non-city cameras with the owner's consent for surveillance of public events and investigations.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2022
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The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a measure that will expand police access to private cameras, even if a crime hasn't been committed.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a measure Tuesday that will expand police access to private cameras across the city, even if a crime hasn't been committed.

Police will now be able to access non-city cameras with the owner's consent for live surveillance of large scale public events and investigations. It's a big loss for privacy and civil rights groups but a big win for San Francisco police, Mayor London Breed, and the District Attorney's Office who believe the new ordinance will help combat crime.

The proposal implemented as a one-year pilot program will allow police to monitor private video feeds within a 24-hour period in the following situations: during a life-threatening emergency, to redeploy during a mass event and during criminal investigations.

San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani voted in support of the measure.

"The San Francisco Police Dept. does not have enough police officers to monitor crime in real time. We just don't," Sup. Stefani said. "For me it expands what our officers can do to keep our community safe."

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But privacy experts disagree -- calling the measure "overly invasive."

"Surveillance doesn't make the city safer," said Saira Hussain, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Hussain worries the measure will disproportionately impact marginalized communities and infringe upon first amendment rights.

"We know that in the past SFPD has used such cameras to monitor pride and the protests following George Floyd's murder," said Hussain. "We're very concerned about what this could mean for the rights of people in the LGBTQ community, communities of color, and religious minorities. And people who are engaged in lawful protest."

Police can also seek use of private surveillance for felony and misdemeanor violations.

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"Like posting an ad on city and county property without authorization, disturbing a religious services with rude or indecent behavior... those are misdemeanors under California law," said Jennifer Jones, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. "So under the proposal, SFPD would be able to turn live surveillance if any of those activities are expected."

Jones added since the language in the ordinance is broad, she's worried it could lead to more racial profiling.

"So our concern is that this would really encourage the police dept. to cast a large surveillance net to monitor activities that are completely unrelated to public safety." said Jones.

A delicate balance between privacy and public safety.

"I think we should be able to balance both, balance those concerns with the need to keep the community safe," said Sup. Stefani.

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Supporters argue in order to keep our streets safe, criminals need to be held accountable. District Attorney Brooke Jenkins told the I-Team in July this measure will help make that possible.

"Juries in 2022 want video evidence, it's something they're used to seeing on the news," said Jenkins. "They want that evidence. So that's something that I want to equip our lawyers to have when they go into trial to present a case."

Jenkins added the expanded surveillance will help ensure the right perpetrators are prosecuted.

"That's what these cameras will aid in as well... to make sure we're not prosecuting the wrong person," said Jenkins.

It's still unclear how SFPD will facilitate the live surveillance and go about getting consent from homeowners and property owners. If the camera's owner denies consent, police will be able to issue a warrant. The department will also be required to submit quarterly reports to track the program's progress.

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