Photo by Hélène Goupil

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. 

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

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  1. Further encroaching on people’s privacy is what this is about. Do we want to live in a totalitarian state like China?

  2. Why not make the cameras available if it will preserve and tell a more accurate account of the reported crime. This is why we require body cams on our officers…this only enhances the information we get to solving a crime as far as I can see! Once again if you are not doing wrong what is the harm?

  3. I would side on having good video to solve haineous crime. The shooting in Highland Park Illinois during the Independence Day parade is an example of why we need it. They had video from a dome camera that caught the suspect changing into women’s clothing and blending into the crowd. I bet no one was questioning the individual rights of people standing near the camera. Tragically seven people were slain and 48 injured during that shooting. I feel that the safety of the whole outweigh my rights as an individual.

  4. “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.”

    OK; Connie Chan, here’s the evidence:

    The killer that recently stabbed a man to death at the 24th & Mission BART Stations was identified and caught due to the use of surveillance cameras.

    If it’s good enough and effective enough for London in deterring and solving crime then it should be likewise for SF.

  5. Are they using a private contractor to do this surveillance?

    For example, are they using footage from privately owned Ring devices, which it seems Amazon now has full access to, to enforce the law?

    I am always skeptical of our elected officials, who will give an expensive contract to just about anyone without oversight or benefit to the community.

  6. “but the new policy would allow the department to request access to individual or private business cameras in real time, without a warrant. ” Can you explain what exactly this means, and how it would be used? What are the repercussions for refusing access if you had a camera?