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News + PoliticsPoliceSupes advance police spying bill

Supes advance police spying bill

Measure opposed by civil-liberties groups now goes to the full board.


The Board of Supes Rules Committee Monday approved 2-1 a complex plan for police surveillance using private cameras—a proposal that the ACLU, the San Francisco Bar Association, and two members of the Police Commission urged the panel to delay.

The issue doesn’t involve the use of city cameras; it’s about how the cops can use data from cameras owned and operated by individuals who voluntarily turn that data over to the cops.

But some of the implications are alarming.

Should SFPDE be able to access private cameras. which are everywhere?  Wikimedia image by Xavier Snelgrove.

In the most simple situation, a business owner or resident records on a ring camera someone breaking into their property and stealing stuff; they want the cops to arrest the suspect, who is clearly visible. So they turn over the video.

That’s what police officials talked about (at first) at the hearing, and it seems pretty straightforward: If you have a video of a crime, and you want the cops to use it, you have the right to give it to them.

But then it starts to get a lot more fuzzy.

What if the cops want—and they do—access to live footage from your cameras? What if the footage also shows activities that are protected by the First Amendment? What if, along with a potential crime, the camera has recorded people engaged in perfectly activities that are perfectly legal in California (like entering an abortion clinic or an immigration-rights office) that they might not want authorities in another state or the federal government to access?

The policy at issue would allow an officer to seek access to data on a private camera with approval from a captain. That data could only be reviewed, not recorded, until the officer has clear evidence that it might be part of a criminal investigation. The video would only be available for 24 hours after the captain approved the process.

Sup. Aaron Peskin, who spent months working with the cops, the Mayor’s Office, and other stakeholders, said the proposal before the committee was a compromise. It would allow the cops to use private camera data in situations where that data might help solve a crime, but with very strict limits.

It’s also the result of a deal with Breed that kept a much-more sweeping surveillance measure off the ballot.

“Is it perfect? Probably not,” Peskin said. But he called it a balance between privacy (which he has been promoting for years) and public safety.

It’s also unique, he said, in that the policy would sunset after 15 months, and could only be renewed if the supes reviewed the data on how the policy was used and agreed to expand it.

And as the cops pointed out, these are private cameras, and the owners have every right to turn the footage voluntarily over to the authorities if they want.

But the civil-liberties community wasn’t happy.

The Bar Association of San Francisco noted:

It does not appear to be unduly burdensome to require SFPD to seek an expedited warrant should it become necessary to gain access to desired camera footage. Failure to seek a warrant will invite civil lawsuits against San Francisco and, if footage is gathered as proposed, the evidence will likely be subject to suppression litigation in a criminal proceeding, jeopardizing any prosecution on which it relies. A warrant should be necessary to set forth the need for an extraordinary measure like live surveillance. Legal process and the approval of a judicial officer is readily available to law enforcement and has always protected the rights of San Franciscans as well as the integrity of criminal prosecutions. Apart from these concerns, it is not clear the Policy will result in greater public safety given the absence of any evidence or data suggesting that SFPD needs radically expanded surveillance capabilities to do its job. Law enforcement agencies in this country have always been capable of ensuring public safety while also respecting Americans’ civil liberties and we see no reason for a departure from traditional techniques.

Two members of the Police Commission, Cindy Elias and Kevin Benedicto, said that the commission didn’t have adequate notice and that the measure would impact deliberations on other police policy measures:

The Proposed Policy will have massive ramifications for the San Francisco Police Department (“SFPD” or “Department”), and even larger ramifications and impacts on the San Francisco community we serve, as it touches on issues of civil liberties, constitutional rights, and privacy. Recent events have reminded us of how fragile these rights can be and how we must, as public servants, ensure they are protected.

The Proposed Policy represents a significant shift in the SFPD’s access to and use of surveillance technology and carries major ramifications for the Department and for the people of San Francisco. We were not provided a draft of the Proposed Policy before it was introduced to the Board and learned about this matter just as members of the public did, from news reports and the presentation to the Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors. Given that the Proposed Policy will have major impacts and ramifications on the Department’s policy, the Commission – as the policy and oversight body of the Department – should have been consulted.

A broad coalition including the ACLU, the Public Defender’s Office, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the Council on American Islamic Relations, opposed the bill, saying in a letter to the board that:

If the SFPD asked the city to buy thousands of new cameras for live surveillance, residents and the Board would be rightly alarmed. The SFPD’s proposal to exploit private surveillance cameras should be met with the same skepticism. It massively expands police surveillance, but instead of using city owned cameras, the SFPD can quickly appropriate thousands of private feeds focused on homes, medical clinics, non-profit groups, and even places of worship. The SFPD could also access the hundreds of networked cameras that are part of Business Improvement Districts across the city.

The proposal broadly permits the SFPD to monitor people engaged in a wide array of peaceful activities. Specifically, the proposal dramatically lowers the standard needed for live surveillance by permitting the SFPD to tap into private cameras in response to any violation of criminal law, including misdemeanors. This would encourage the SFPD to cast an extremely large surveillance net to monitor activities completely unrelated to public safety. For example, under the proposal the SFPD could conduct sweeping surveillance for non-dangerous unlawful activities like railroad fare evasions, posting an advertisement on city or county property without authorization, or disturbing a religious service with “rude or indecent behavior,” all of which are misdemeanors under California law. This broad authority invites the constant activation of live camera surveillance that will not only further criminalize Black people, activists, immigrants, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and other communities frequently targeted by the police and government,

Assistant Chief David Lazar sought to respond to those concerns, but only made things worse. He said that live camera feeds could be used if, for example, the SFPD had reason to suspect that crimes would occur in a neighborhood at, say, 4-6pm. “A plainclothes officer might be seen right away,” Lazar said.

Sup. Connie Chan asked Lazar why the department wouldn’t simply put foot patrols in the area to deter crime. Lazar said the department is too short-staffed. “If you are short staffed,” she said, “it makes me curious about how will have staffing for the live monitoring.”

The committee voted 2-1 to pass the measure along to the full board, with Peskin and Sup. Rafael Mandelman in support and Chan in dissent.       

Jennifer Jones, technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California said:

When nearly every civil rights organization in San Francisco is ringing the alarm, our elected leaders should listen. The policy moving forward gives the police extraordinary, dangerous live surveillance powers, and then hopes that they’ll be honest when self-auditing. That’s a serious problem that is now on the full board to address.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


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