Sep 22, 2022 - News

What your supervisor thinks about police surveillance

Illustration of a security camera topped with police car lights
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors sparred this week over an ordinance to allow the police department to request access to live surveillance technology from private parties.

Why it matters: The proposed legislation has ignited controversy around privacy rights and the potential for misuse of the technology.

Driving the news: The board voted Tuesday 7-4 to approve the measure, which has a sunset date of 15 months from implementation.

How it works: The legislation would allow the SF Police Department to seek permission to access private cameras during life-threatening situations, mass events that may require law enforcement, and criminal investigations.

  • Police would have to obtain permission from both the camera owner and a member of the police force ranked captain or higher.
  • If permitted, police could access the live feeds for up to 24 hours.
  • At the end of the program's trial period, the BOS would reconvene, review data from the pilot and decide how to move forward.
What they're saying:

Each member of the Board of Supervisors had a chance to comment prior to Tuesday's vote. Here's a taste of what they said and how they voted:

Connie Chan (D1, no)

  • "Even with [a sunset date of 15 months], what we're looking at right now is not enough to safeguard civil rights, is not enough to safeguard our city's privacy rights when so much is at stake."

Catherine Stefani (D2, yes)

  • "I think that we have reached a place where we've balanced the need for everyone to feel safe, with a right to privacy and for everyone to feel safe from those who would do us harm. I trust the police department to carry that out. I trust this body to hold the police department accountable."

Aaron Peskin (D3, yes)

  • "What we have been endeavoring to do in our evaluation of this use policy is to balance the very, very important, fundamentally American values and rights to privacy in the public realm, to protect our civil liberties and to allow law enforcement to, with rules, utilize certain technologies to make San Francisco safer. … As I said the other day, is this perfect? Probably not. Is it worth a try? I think so."

Gordon Mar (D4, yes)

  • "I appreciate the fact that this is a [trial period] and then after that period, we'll really be able to evaluate whether the policy did indeed help enhance public safety at large events and whether it helped the police department investigate crime and of course, whether there's abuse of the policy or it was used in ways that may really infringe on privacy and First Amendment rights."

Dean Preston (D5, no)

  • "I am struck by and saddened by how far we've come from 2020 and our shared, I thought, commitment to changing our city and our society from a society that over-polices, over-surveils, over-criminalizes and over-incarcerates people, particularly Black and brown people, to something different … There's no evidence that the kind of broader surveillance, especially the live surveillance … reduces crime or makes us safer in any way."

Matt Dorsey (D6, yes)

Myrna Melgar (D7, yes)

  • "I don't always trust our police department, but I think that the issue here is not to restrict surveillance technology. It is to reform those aspects of our policing that we don't think are appropriate for modern times."

Rafael Mandelman (D8, yes)

  • "We have technology that we can use responsibly and with appropriate guardrails that will allow our understaffed police department to function more effectively and address challenges that are facing us not in the future, but in the here and now."

Hillary Ronen (D9, no)

  • "It feels to me like we're yet again giving away more power for, in this case, the police department to surveil our activities when we're expressing our opinion against the government. And that’s becoming a scarier and scarier thing to do in this country. And so … this does not sit well with me at all."

Shamann Walton (D10, no)

  • "I know the thought process is 'just trust us, just trust the police department.' But the reality is people have been violating civil liberties since my ancestors were brought here from an entirely completely different continent. This police department used the DNA of a rape victim to make an arrest on the rape victim. So this whole, 'Just trust the police department,' … I don't know where we get that from."
  • "Even as a law-abiding Black man, my civil liberties have been violated. This is dangerous, even with the provisions and best intentions."

Ahsha Safaí (D11, yes)

  • "This is something that will be utilized in San Francisco first and foremost as a deterrent … we can amend this legislation the minute it is implemented, if it were being abused…"

Mayor London Breed praised the decision, calling it "a sensible policy" that gives the police department "another tool to address significant public safety challenges and hold those who break the law accountable."

The other side: The ACLU of Northern California said it's "very troubled" by the vote, arguing "surveillance leads to over-policing" and "suppresses dissent."

What's next: The BOS still must give the legislation final approval, but that process is typically perfunctory.

  • Breed then would have to sign off within 10 days of receiving it.
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