You are now under surveillance while recreating. But why should Dolores Park be different than anywhere else in San Francisco?

StanleyRoberts, the camera-wielding extrovert behind KRON’s “People Behaving Badly” segment, has referred to Bay To Breakers as “My Christmas.” But Dolores Park is proof that Christmas need not come but once a year.

In a typical episode — for both Dolores Park, and Roberts — his camera catches a skeezy nudist sunbathing on the green: “So, the guy’s buck naked. He ties up his junk with a bandana,” Roberts explains. “He goes to piss in the bushes. And, on the way back, he steps in a big pile of dog shit.”

Well, that’s some good television right there.

And that sort of thing is happening every day in Dolores Park. There’s drinking and dope-dealing and unlicensed peddling and bad craziness and all manner of anti-social behavior by man and beast — and, on Aug. 3, a brazen daylight shooting put three people in the hospital. It’s the latter incident that spurred city government to install cameras of its own at Dolores Park, in hopes of observing people behaving very badly.

The Recreation and Park Department confirmed that “more than a dozen” cameras will eventually be installed (they were intentionally vague). The first batch is already in place, thanks to $250,000 from the city’s general fund.

So, that’s something to think about, whether you’re planning a gangland hit or merely popping the top on a bottle of Lagunitas. You are being watched. And while it’s one thing for Roberts or any private citizen equipped with the powerful, internet-tethered cameras we now omnipresently carry in our pockets to film you, it’s another when the government steps in. It makes people uncomfortable. Even the watchmen.

“There is something inherently creepy about the government watching you,” admits a high-ranking San Francisco cop. “I’m not sure the loss of civil liberties is worth the payoff. It’s just too Big Brother.”

But the cameras going up at Dolores Park are far from the city’s first foray into snooping on the general public. Starting in 2006, San Francisco began installing “crime safety cameras” in public right-of-ways, as well as in public housing. There are currently more than two dozen batteries of cameras watching over us on the streets; Mission District locations include 16th and Mission, 19th and Mission, 24th and Mission, 26th and Shotwell, and 26th and Treat.

So, we have a track record when it comes to keeping an eye on crime in the city. And, believe it or not, it’s not particularly good. Crime victims may not be thrilled to hear this, but civil libertarians can breathe a bit easier: In this city, Big Brother can’t get his act together.

Photo by Lydia Chávez.


Startingaround a decade ago, the forms filled out by SFPD patrol officers had a section querying whether the officer searched for a camera in the vicinity of the reported incident. “And,” says a former Mission District officer, “depending on the severity of the crime, inspectors would go back during the day and contact the business or residences you indicated.”

Video evidence, for lack of a better word, is good. It’s getting to be more and more necessary. “It’s 2017,” says a longtime inspector. “People want the cops to wear cameras. And when we take a case to court, people want to know about video evidence. This is what people want.”

But people want more services without increased taxes, too. People like the idea of neat-and-clean video evidence, even if they don’t like the idea of living in an Orwellian fishbowl. Rolling out cameras across the city, it turns out, is something of a Faustian bargain. The increased security comes with a looming societal cost. And, this being San Francisco, we overpaid for that societal cost.

To wit, the multiple officers contacted for this story panned the costly crime safety cameras as ineffectual, and for myriad reasons: Like BART cameras, they have not reliably been functioning; the footage is inferior (“like a 1950s black-and-white television”); they cannot be moved in real-time; and the data is purged after 30 days. “Alls I can see are two human beings engaged in an altercation,” summed up one veteran cop. “Well, we already knew that!”

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So far this year, police or other investigators have made 121 requests to review the footage on our city’s crime cameras. No doubt, some of these have been fruitful endeavors. Many aren’t. “We fax or e-mail the Department of Emergency Management and ask them ‘Can we get Cameras Nos. 12, 13 and 14 from 1 to 1:30?'” says a longtime officer asked to describe a typical interaction. “You look at it, you don’t see shit, you move on.”

By now you’ve probably gleaned that nobody monitors our cameras in real-time. They don’t monitor the new Dolores Park cameras in real-time either. City rules and policies have specifically prevented officers from doing so. The notion of cops watching video footage, let alone in real-time, makes people uncomfortable. The ACLU isn’t thrilled with it either. But that’s what actually made crime cameras effective in other cities that took the (expensive and process-heavy) step of installing them. In San Francisco, we’ve chosen to impede on citizens’ civil liberties but, for our own reasons, we’ve opted to do so in the most ineffectual way possible — with cameras that don’t work well, that aren’t being watched.

Therules governing this city’s public cameras were formulated in an era before the word “selfie” was ubiquitous. Nor were the smartphones that necessitated this addition to the dictionary, and have also transformed society and law enforcement. The streets of every major city are now patrolled by armies of cameras attached to people. There are cameras in virtually every place of business now, too.

“You’re better off having the footage caught on private camera,” grumbles a longtime officer. And you’re more and more likely to be caught on private camera: Dmitri Shimolin, the CEO of the Mission District’s Applied Video Solutions, has overseen camera installations throughout more than half a dozen city Business Improvement Districts. This constitutes some 100 blocks of San Francisco under observation by privately funded cameras not constrained by the city’s restrictive rules and potentially onerous footage retrieval procedures.  

If these private cameras are doing what they’re supposed to, criminals glean that it’s unwise to put on a show in front of them. Which is what San Francisco officials hope the cameras at Dolores Park will also do. And, for what it’s worth, the Dolores Park cameras are much better than the maligned George W. Bush-vintage models throughout the city. The new cameras are filming in 12 megapixels instead of three.  

So, city workers are confident the Dolores Park cameras will serve as a deterrent — there’ll be signs indicating park-goers are under surveillance. But, then, there are signs reminding park-goers that the park is a drug-free zone where smoking and alcohol is prohibited.

The deterrence will come, multiple cops tell us, when the cameras are proven to be effective — with arrests and prosecutions.

And, even then, the problems of crime in the Mission won’t be solved. It’ll nearly be moved. Data analyses have indicated cameras don’t all that much to stop crime in this city. Homicides decreased in their vicinity but, maddeningly, increased a stone’s throw away, mitigating any benefits.

The cameras and “fixed post” police presence in Dolores Park, bemoan officers, are an example of “scarecrow policing” or “gross motor-skill policing.” It is a simple, short-term fix for a complex, long-term problem.

“If there’s a cop on your porch,” explains one, “your house will not be burglarized.” But, he continues, “It absolutely does not get to the roots of crime. It will have no effect on the number of robberies. They just won’t be in Dolores Park.”

People, in other words, will continue to behave badly. Elsewhere.