Police Chief Bill Scott addresses the Rules Committee on July 11, 2022

Three years after San Francisco passed a law requiring city departments to get approval for their use of surveillance technology (and six months after the mayor briefly attempted to carve out a loophole for the police department), the SFPD has finally proposed a surveillance policy, this time guiding its use of non-city surveillance cameras. 

But voters and critics say the proposed policy gives the police far too much access and discretion when it comes to surveilling San Francisco: It allows for live surveillance when a misdemeanor or a vaguely defined “significant event” is in progress, and gives the SFPD the new power to tap into private cameras for live monitoring. 

“The SFPD’s proposal would be an extreme escalation in the police’s surveillance powers,” ACLU attorney Matt Cagle told Mission Local. The ACLU of Northern California is part of a coalition speaking out against the new policy, and Cagle said he hoped the Board would listen to the coalition’s objections, which were laid out in a letter on Friday

Cagle also pointed to a poll of San Francisco voters, in which 60 percent of respondents opposed the proposal. Meanwhile, they overwhelmingly supported various alternatives to increased policing, like drug, mental health, and other social services. 

Currently, the SFPD has no surveillance technology policy in place for live camera monitoring, and may only access live camera streams without Board approval under “exigent circumstances” where there is “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury.”

The proposed SFPD policy, already approved by the 18-member Committee on Information Technology in April, was heard before the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on Monday. Supervisor Aaron Peskin allowed some discussion and public comment, but continued the item to next week.  

“There’s some really good pieces to this policy,” said privacy expert Brian Hofer, who sits on the City of Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission and heads the nonprofit Secure Justice. But Hofer agreed with the coalition that three or four “major red flags” needed to be addressed within the policy. 

For example, the thousands of private cameras across the city that the SFPD may now gain live access to were “never intended to be a part of the police arsenal,” Cagle said. Under the new policy, the SFPD could live-monitor private cameras across the city, including residents’ Ring doorbell cameras, or those operated by private organizations or businesses. At present, police can request private camera footage after an incident, or live monitor it when there is imminent danger.  

And Cagle noted there is no process in place for how police will obtain footage from civilian cameras, potentially allowing police to coerce community members to hand over their footage. 

Today, an SFPD presenter said police would ask non-city entities on a case-by-case basis to sign over permission for police to access their camera feeds in real time. If they refuse, the police would seek a warrant. 

The ACLU and other partners expressed various concerns when the policy was before the technology committee, Cagle said, but “very few amendments” were made, and concerns were “barely addressed.” The committee is made up of nearly 20 high-up city officials, including Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton, Director of Public Health Grant Colfax, and Human Rights Commission director Sheryl Davis. 

“I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Hofer said of the committee, but added that the standard for approval of a surveillance policy requires that the benefits outweigh the costs. According to Hofer, “there were no concrete, identified benefits … there were no metrics” in the current proposal. 

He suggested that the political climate and the mayor influenced the committee members to pass the policy, despite glaring issues. Earlier this year, Mayor London Breed submitted a ballot measure to expand the SFPD’s surveillance powers, allowing the police to access surveillance technology freely without approval from the Board of Supervisors, and effectively overruling 2019 legislation that codified Board oversight. Hofer co-authored that legislation. 

Breed’s measure was submitted just before the deadline to appear on the June ballot, and Supervisor Aaron Peskin immediately submitted a rival ballot measure with support from fellow Board members, reaffirming the privacy protections in the 2019 legislation. Ultimately, Breed withdrew her measure and Peskin followed suit, and for months things have been quiet as the SFPD has worked to come into compliance with the law and draft a surveillance policy. 

Hofer said that in about 30 other departments’ policies he saw the technology committee critically evaluated them and pushed back, clarified, or made adjustments as needed. This time, he said, that was not the case. 

Despite the fact that the technology committee approved the policy and the mayor made her support for expanded surveillance clear, “the buck stops with the Board,” Cagle said. “The ball is in the Board’s court now to listen to their constituents and push back on this police power grab.” 

Peskin, who heads the Rules Committee and who has been an outspoken proponent of limiting the SFPD’s access to surveillance technology, suggested there would be “tweaks” needed for the new policy, but seemed to find it nearly complete. 

“We are very close to a policy that protects public safety without abridging our civil liberties,” Peskin told Mission Local, adding that he plans to introduce some amendments of his own. 

He suggested some changes during Monday’s hearing, including the removal of the clause allowing the SFPD to access cameras during any investigation for a misdemeanor or felony violation, raising the fear that such access could allow for “constant live monitoring.” 

Such access could mean the surveillance of nonviolent criminal activities like fare evasions, the coalition pointed out in its letter on Friday. The policy also allows for live monitoring during “significant events” raising “public safety concerns,” such as peaceful activism and many large gatherings. 

SFPD Chief William Scott and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman pushed back and suggested that live monitoring in preparation for criminal activity would help prevent it. 

Peskin said he is “trying to find the sweet spot” to give the police adequate public safety tools also while protecting rights and civil liberties. He called the new policy a “vast improvement” and said he would address some of the privacy advocates’ concerns.  

Breed, in a Medium post on Saturday, championed the new policy and her involvement in it, as well as her increased funding for the police department and her appointment of Brooke Jenkins as district attorney. 

Broadened access to surveillance technology would not only help police and the new DA do their jobs, Breed said, but could also ”be used to prevent mistakes — I’ve known people who were falsely accused and falsely prosecuted and video footage can help make sure that those life-changing and devastating consequences don’t happen.”

According to the mayor, the new policy includes “strong guardrails against misuse of technology and video footage,” a claim that privacy advocates dispute. 

While the policy forbids cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol, it doesn’t prevent San Francisco police from sharing footage they obtain with other out-of-state or federal law enforcement agencies, putting the city’s sanctuary status at risk. There are no protections for civilians who don’t wish to share their private cameras with police. 

Whether the Board will contradict the mayor on the new policy is yet to be seen. 

Peskin called the new policy a ”hot political potato” that the technology committee punted to the Board without pushback on any issues. The politics around the mayor’s competing ballot measure, and general public discourse about policing and civil liberties made the committee “wave the white flag and send it [his] way.” 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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14 Comments

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  1. I have numerous high-definition cameras all over my property and have on numerous occasions shared video of criminals (people who broke car windows and stole items) with the police department. the problem isn’t the cameras, the problem is crime.

  2. Breed and Jenkins: “Now that Boudin’s gone, we’ll show the public that they can trust the mayor’s office and the SFPD.”

    {stopwatch sets}
    {the above SFPD proposal goes public}
    {stopwatch clicks off}

    Now, that is record time in so blatantly betraying the public’s trust. Brava, Breed! 👍🏿

    1. Scared the video will back up the police claims about what happened on a street corner & legally observed by a private citizen? You want privacy? Do it at home!

  3. 1984 in the making.

    There’s a couple of ways to deal with crime:
    1. Deal with it after it happens (the current way.)
    2. Make it unnecessary and unenticing, by fixing the country’s income inequality, education and meet people’s needs.

    Hyper capitalism gone wrong has created a bleak living situation for many. Should we choose to ignore it, it’ll only get worse.

    The police force in a way are like a band aide that can’t fix the problem, they merely deal with the aftermath, sometimes even make it worse, because they aren’t trained to fix every situation.

    1. You are funny… poverty existed thousands of years before capitalism ever existed. In fact capitalism is the only thing that has ever cured poverty any place on earth. You can go to Cuba and live without capitalism on $20 a month, like everyone else does there. Except of course the high party officials…

  4. To clarify when they say “private cameras”, it’s just people who opt-in to share their camera feeds. It’s not the SFPD actually breaking into people’s camera feeds. It’s residents saying “please use my camera’s view to keep us safe”

    If I have a camera on my home I have every right to stream it wherever I please (YouTube, to the SFPD, to Twitter, etc,), just like I have the right to call SFPD if I see something illegal outside of my house with my own two eyes.

    There should be no expectation of privacy when you’re out in public. Anyone can see what you’re doing, can photograph what you’re doing, and there may be a camera that streams what you’re doing to an audience on YouTube, Twitter, SFPD, or to a computer to analyze.

    1. Yuck, how creepy. Nobody walking down the street should have to be worried about being splashed all over YouTube.

      1. I dont think anyone is interested or talking about posting random video clips of strangers on the internet. It’s only footage of crimes being committed or evidence to be used in solving or conviction for a crime that have any relevance or value in this instance. The alternative is we pay more taxes to employ an absurd number of police to try and blanket the city to prevent crime but that hasnt proven to be terribly effective either. At least live feed cameras are a half way point to identifying crimes in progress and getting response units on site faster using existing infrastructure, does it mean we have a little less privacy, sure, but maybe we also get faster police response or at the very least, better tools to identify and convict criminals. Police
        simply cannot be present everytime a crime is happening, criminals have become smarter and more coordinated and the Police need more tools to fight this problem more effectively. If that happens to come at the price of a little privacy, I”m ok with it, I have nothing to hide though.

    2. You are wrong. It is about the police commandeering private cameras throughout the city (not asking if they can be used, by telling people they will be using them).

      They can currently get that footage retrospectively, but what they want is to have live 24 hour access to private cameras throughout the city.

      Big Brother in other words.

    1. I hope she does. There’s a lot of anger directed at the mayor. Look what just happened to Shinzo Abe in a country with very few guns.