Facing public disapproval and pushback from the Board of Supervisors, Mayor London Breed on Monday withdrew a ballot measure to give police expanded access to monitor surveillance cameras.
“Cooler heads have prevailed,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who sponsored an opposing ballot measure in January that reaffirmed a 2019 law requiring city agencies to get board approval to access surveillance technologies. Peskin’s measure was supported by at least four other supervisors.
Upon learning that the mayor withdrew her ballot measure, Peskin also withdrew his on Monday. The competing measures were set to appear on the June ballot.
Peskin said he believes the mayor, facing a fight from his office and privacy advocates, saw a “daunting hill to climb.”
Breed wanted the police to have access to real-time camera feeds – without Board approval – during “critical events” or in “public safety crisis areas.” But, under the extant 2019 San Francisco surveillance law, in circumstances of “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury,” Board approval is not required for police to view live camera feeds.
The Union Square mass-thefts, which occurred the month before the mayor’s December announcement, all but certainly qualify as such a circumstance.
The mayor’s initiative attempted “to evade oversight by giving unilateral authority to the Police Chief to decide which situations merit the use of surveillance technology,” wrote Saira Hussain, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit privacy advocacy organization, last month in an email. “This is especially troubling given our pending lawsuit against the SFPD for violating this very ordinance.”
The lawsuit, filed by the EFF and the ACLU of Northern California, alleges that the police department illegally used a business district’s camera network to surveil Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020.
“They were basically looking for a broad carveout for the police, which I didn’t think made public policy sense,” Peskin told Mission Local Tuesday.
According to the mayor’s office, the lack of access to live surveillance footage put San Francisco police “at a disadvantage” in dealing with crime compared to nearby jurisdictions. Breed first suggested that she would take steps to give officers more access in December 2021, when she gave a strongly worded speech about cracking down on crime in the Tenderloin and other neighborhoods impacted by criminal activity.
In response to her proposal, Peskin and his colleagues unveiled a ballot measure to “ensure compliance and prevent interference” with the 2019 Surveillance Oversight Act. Both the mayor’s and Peskin’s measures were submitted on Jan. 18, shortly before the deadline for the June ballot.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a victory for good public policy, and oversight in the age of government surveillance technology,” Peskin said. Now, he said, it’s time for the SFPD to comply with the 2019 law. Peskin said the police department has promised to do so, joining dozens of other city departments.
“The SFPD tried to twist people’s fear to seize virtually unchecked surveillance powers, and San Franciscans saw right through it,” said Matt Cagle, Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, in a press release on Tuesday.
The Department of Police Accountability, one of San Francisco’s police oversight agencies, has joined in the push for stronger privacy protections. The DPA recently audited the SFPD’s practices for investigating First Amendment activities such as protests and marches.
The audit found that the police department had failed to destroy certain intelligence files on schedule, in violation of the SFPD’s own policy for purging materials acquired during investigations. In two instances, the audit found, police officers were not trained on the policy protecting first amendment rights prior to joining the Special Investigations Division.
When asked during a February Police Commission meeting, Police Chief Bill Scott could not confirm that the files had been destroyed. The SFPD has not yet responded to a request for comment; this story will be updated if and when they do.