By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – This week newly appointed DA Brooke Jenkins jumped onboard a brewing fight over surveillance cameras. Already, a coalition of community and civil rights organizations have sent a letter urging the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to oppose or at the very least modify a San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) proposal that would give police the ability to access private surveillance cameras for the purpose of live monitoring of “significant events.”
One of the organizations opposed to such powers is Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Saira Hussain, a staff attorney for EFF told the Vanguard, “the program that the SFPD wants to create is unprecedented in city history, and it would let SFPD co-op private cameras mounted on homes, businesses, and organizations to conduct sweeping live surveillance.”
She argued, “if the SFPD asked the city to buy thousands of new cameras for live surveillance and put them up all across the various blocks of San Francisco residents and the Board of Supervisors would be rightfully alarmed.” She added, “the proposal here should be met with just as much skepticism because here the proposal is to exploit private surveillance cameras for the very same purpose.”
Like others, the EFF is concerned about privacy invasion and the invasion of civil rights of San Francisco and in particular the marginalized communities of San Francisco.
While there seems to be a strong public backlash, others, concerned about crime and drugs, have embraced the approach, arguing that it would give law enforcement a tool to better combat open air drug markets.
Hussain argued that there are a number of risks here.
“The first is around the type of sweeping live surveillance that SFPD wants to be able to access currently,” she said. “Currently SFPD s limited in the type of live monitoring that it can do using private cameras. And what they’re seeking to do is drastically expand that use to cover almost any scenario.”
In this proposal they want to be able to use live cameras for felony and misdemeanor violations, set up a camera, access the camera where “they think something bad may happen to be able to view it.”
Hussain noted that there was an exchange with the Board of Supervisors on Monday, where the police chief argued that “if there’s a corner that’s known for shootings, for example, we may want to monitor over the cameras there.”
The Board was a little skeptical of the utility of setting up a camera to capture a shooting without the police actually being there.
Hussain said, “that may not exactly make sense.”
She noted that they also want to set up live surveillance “for any significant event,” which she said, “they define very broadly to include any event involving a street closure or SFPD having to direct traffic. And you can imagine a host of scenarios where that takes place, literally any protest that happens in San Francisco, religious gatherings, (or) parades.”
She said, “there are real concerns about people being able to actually exercise their first amendment activities, without being under the police’s watchful eye the entire time.”
She further questioned the “type of historical footage that the police want to be able to access. There are few limitations on historical footage and we believe that really needs to be narrowed down to events where there’s evidence of a crime or exonerating evidence potentially.”
She argued, “that information shouldn’t be retained for two years, which is what the SFPD is proposing because that can later be misused.”
With recent court cases, there is also concern with using video to prosecute those seeking abortion access or gender-affirming care.
“Those requests do not comport with San Francisco’s values,” she said but could be compelled even if such actions do not break state law.
She said, “We should not be sharing that type of information out of state and federal agencies. And there have to be limitations on that. So we just really feel like this proposal is extremely broad, would give SFPD essentially unprecedented access to private surveillance cameras that quite frankly exist all over the city. And we believe that the proposal as it stands just does not pass muster of protecting privacy and civil liberties.”
While newly appointed DA Jenkins came out in favor it, Hussain pointed out, “it is important to note that, uh, in a citywide poll that was conducted on this very proposal, 60% of likely voters for November, 2022, oppose giving SFPD the power to obtain live realtime access, to watch and monitor surveillance cameras at private businesses in public streets and spaces and on people’s homes.”
She said, “this is not a popular proposal.”
Moreover she said, the same polling “shows that San Francisco residents overwhelmingly prefer alternatives to surveillance and police. They want more resources on drug and mental health programs, more healthcare providers and social workers, and even more street lights.”
Finally, the proposal purports to address open air drug dealing.
“If you know something is happening, how do the cameras necessarily help?” she said. She pointed out one of the survivors brought up the point, “is this how we really want to use our resources? Because you know, something’s happening, like, is it actually helpful to do the live monitoring?”
She added, “this has serious implications for people’s civil rights here in San Francisco. We also know that when the police say things like there’s open air drug markets out the potential impact to, and the potential disproportionate impact to marginalized communities, communities of color, um, communities that have traditionally been overpoliced.”
The concern here is that they will misuse use these to target certain communities and disproportionately punish them.
This was borne out on Tuesday when DA Brooke Jenkins held a press conference in the Tenderloin to address drug issues.
Reporter Gil Duran tweeted, “Active drug use and sales took place within sight of the new DA as she spoke, reinforcing the intractability of the problem she says she’ll solve
She said, “Seeing the drug deals seeing open drug use on the street, that is not something that we can tolerate in the Tenderloin any longer.”
She continued, “I have committed to them just like I did the entire city to making sure that we end these open air drug markets that we clear these streets so that the kids and the people who live here can go about their daily lives without being scared.”
But perhaps illustrating the difficult, Duran tweeted, “After the DA left, a few TV crews trained their cameras on a man directly across the street, his pants around his knees, struggling to remain standing, succumbing to the “fentanyl fold””