By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – Critics alleged that the San Francisco Police were attempting to “sneak” a policy that “grants them sweeping live access” to what could be thousands of private cameras including those on doorbells and businesses. The Board of Supervisors reportedly delayed the vote after receiving more than 400 messages from angry constituents.
The ACLU of Northern California wrote Friday that “a committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will review a dangerous SFPD policy proposal that would allow the city’s police department to conduct live surveillance of people going about their daily lives by co-opting thousands of private cameras owned by residents, businesses, and organizations.”
As written this proposal would allow the police “to use private cameras to monitor people going about their daily lives and to request troves of recorded footage, keeping it for years.”
But the policy had a key supporter—newly appointed DA Brooke Jenkins.
On Monday Jenkins came out in support of the proposal.
In a tweet, she wrote, “Technology can play an important role in deterring crime & holding offenders accountable. In addition, the policy adds important increased transparency that can aid with investigations into alleged officer misconduct & in preventing law enforcement from pursuing the wrong person.”
In a letter of support to the Board of Supervisors, Jenkins said, “This ordinance will provide law enforcement with a critical tool to make our city safer while also supporting accountability.”
Jenkins wrote: “As prosecutors, we can deliver justice for residents when our Police Department is able to make arrests, and provide sufficient evidence to support a conviction. This policy will help us promote and protect public safety, while also maintaining strong safeguards to prevent any misuse of technology.
“I support this policy because not only will it serve a practical purpose of helping us to deter crime and hold those who commit crimes in our city accountable, but will also send a message to those scheming to prey on our city that there will be consequences for their actions,” she added. “Our tone and approach matters.”
But rights groups like the ACLU and EFF opposed the policy, arguing among other things insufficient safeguards and the failure of the SFPD to adhere to the protection of rights in past practice.
Jennifer Jones and Matt Cagle of the ACLU argue, “It does not set any meaningful limits on how SFPD can share this video. So, in practice, local police could conceivably turn over stockpiled and time-stamped footage to prosecutors from other states.”
Moreover, they note, “SFPD was already caught using a network of over 300 private cameras to spy on thousands of people protesting the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020.”
At that time, the ACLU and others sued “on behalf of local activists of color, alleging SFPD violated the city’s surveillance law when it used these cameras without public input and approval from the Board of Supervisors.”
That case will soon be heard by the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
The ACLU also noted, “According to a citywide poll that we commissioned, 60% of San Franciscans oppose letting the police use private cameras to monitor people. That same poll also shows that San Francisco residents overwhelmingly prefer alternative approaches to public safety that do not rely on surveillance or police.”
But Jenkins is doing the bidding of Mayor London Breed on this issue.
Breed last December announced plans to allow police to monitor surveillance cameras after the national attention focused on smash and grab burglaries around Thanksgiving in Time Square.
In the meantime, Jenkins has tipped her hand on issues of drugs—in her first meeting with staff, she asked them to pull all pleas in drug cases that have not been adjudicated and has said that drug dealing will be her first priority.
In her letter, she pushed the issue of drug dealing as well. She wrote, “I believe this policy can help address the existence of open-air drug markets fueling the sale of the deadly drug fentanyl. Drug dealers are destroying people’s lives and wreaking havoc on neighborhoods like the Tenderloin.”
She argued that “the use of cameras can help us tackle the significant public safety challenges facing our city.”
Incredulously, she also added, “This ordinance can also aid in conducting investigations into police misconduct. By allowing the review of historical video footage for the purposes of investigations into alleged officer misconduct, this policy can become a critical part of increasing transparency and accountability in law enforcement. Increased transparency like this is essential for building and maintaining trust between the public and law enforcement.”
But the ACLU sees it differently.
“Three years ago, the ACLU of Northern California led a broad community coalition that fought to pass the city’s law designed to rein in harmful surveillance practices like the one SFPD is currently proposing,” they wrote.
They argue that “immigrants, the unhoused, people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and religious minorities have borne the brunt of harmful government surveillance tactics and would continue to if SFPD’s surveillance powers are not checked.”
The fact that over 400 people signed letters and forced the proposal to be shelved shows just days into Jenkins’ tenure that she may not have public support for quick action.