In a 2-1 vote, the Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors today approved a controversial surveillance technology policy for the police, despite hearing extensive public dissent and the opposition of two police commissioners.
The lone dissenter on the committee, Supervisor Connie Chan, who had expressed reservations about the new policy at past committee meetings, today took a firmer stance. She said she would not support its passage without evidence that the policy would improve public safety.
“I am just concerned … to say that this is somehow an additional tool that will make us safer, I have doubts. I have questions,” Chan said. “I think that, at the end of the day, it is actually about having a police officer out there patrolling, having our police officer doing the investigation and bringing results in arrest.”
Despite his colleague’s reservations, Supervisor Aaron Peskin moved to pass the ordinance, and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman today added himself as a co-sponsor in support.
The mayor-sponsored policy governs the San Francisco Police Department’s use of private cameras for live surveillance, and allows for broad use even when a misdemeanor crime is being committed. The SFPD currently requests footage from such cameras when a crime is believed to have occurred, but the new policy would allow the department to request access to individual or private business cameras in realtime, without a warrant.
Critics of the proposed policy have called the new policy an unnecessary expansion of police surveillance that they say could easily be abused to infringe upon the rights of San Franciscans going about their daily lives or exercising their First Amendment rights.
“I respectfully disagree about why live monitoring is better than having the officers patrolling the spaces,” Chan said. And if staffing is an issue at the SFPD, Chan asked how there would be sufficient staffing for live camera monitoring.
Chan noted recent incidents when officers were physically present on the scene of a crime in progress, but declined to take action or make arrests. She wondered how live footage would be better than simply acquiring footage after the fact.
Several groups have spoken out against the proposed policy during Rules Committee discussions this summer. In the past week, two Board-appointed members of the Police Commission decided to join the conversation.
In a Sept. 8 letter, commissioners Cindy Elias and Kevin Benedicto requested more time to “comprehensively and carefully analyze” the policy’s impact. The commissioners suggested that the policy could conflict with their current efforts to revise the SFPD’s search warrant and First Amendment policies.
They also raised concerns about the policy exacerbating the SFPD’s “unacceptable levels of racial disparity” in its enforcement, and suggested that further examination of the policy was needed.
During the SFPD’s presentation on Monday, police leaders attempted to dispel fears that the police department would have a centralized monitoring station or could stockpile footage as a result of the policy. Members of the department tried to emphasize that safeguards were in place to protect civil liberties.
But a primary issue raised by Chan — then repeatedly hit upon during nearly an hour of public comment today — was around what evidence there was to support expansion of police surveillance powers to begin with.
As one public commenter put it, “in 2022, there should be an expectation that proposals of this sort are supported by data before implementation, not after.”
Citing “the absence of any evidence or data suggesting that SFPD needs radically expanded surveillance capabilities to do its job,” the San Francisco Bar Association and many others spoke out strongly against the new policy in a letter earlier this month. “Law enforcement agencies in this country have always been capable of ensuring public safety while also respecting Americans’ civil liberties, and we see no reason for a departure from traditional techniques.”
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who worked on the initial 2019 privacy-focused legislation requiring city departments to get Board approval of surveillance policies, today seemed ready to move on. Monday was the ordinance’s fourth appearance before the committee.
“I think this is an important exercise. As I said at the beginning, did we get it right? Probably not, but it is worth trying for a year,” Peskin said. At the last Rules Committee meeting, Peskin amended the policy to include a sunset date and additional data-reporting requirements. The policy, as written, will expire after 15 months, at which time the Board will reconsider it and assess its efficacy.
In the end, the committee did not heed requests to delay the vote. Having passed the committee level, it will next appear before the full Board for approval on Sept. 20. If passed, it will become effective 30 days after a final sign-off by the mayor.