Police would be able to tap into San Jose residents' private video cameras under a new proposal that would expand investigators' watchful eye over the city but already is raising big brother-type privacy concerns.
Councilman Sam Liccardo's proposal, unveiled Thursday and set to be discussed by a City Council committee next week, would allow property owners voluntarily to register their security cameras for a new San Jose Police Department database. Officers then would be able to access the footage quickly after a nearby crime has occurred.
It is the latest effort designed to shore up public safety in a city that has seen its reputation as one of the safest big cities in America take a hit in recent years as crime rates have surged and officers have left in droves. The issue is taking center stage heading into the June primary to replace outgoing Mayor Chuck Reed as five local leaders jockey for position as tough-on-crime candidates.
Liccardo, among several council members running for mayor, unveiled the proposal in response to the string of arson fires that terrorized his downtown-area district this month. Police used surveillance videos provided voluntarily by nearby property owners as key evidence in identifying a suspect they arrested on suspicion of burning about a dozen buildings.
"It became apparent that there's a lot of evidence out there that residents want to provide," Liccardo said, predicting that the cost would be nominal because existing city technology employees could maintain the database. The new database "is something that costs very little but could have a big impact in making San Jose safer."
Already police can ask property owners like the ones in the arson-ravaged neighborhood for surveillance footage but have to go door-to-door searching for cameras, a cumbersome process for a police force that is understaffed.
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The new program would allow property owners to sign up for a security camera database so that police responding to burglaries, assaults and other crimes would see a map of nearby locations with cameras. Police would be able to remotely tap into feeds for high-tech cameras, but older models would require residents to turn over the actual tapes.
A San Jose police spokeswoman said the department is interested in the idea but still is exploring its merits, including potential costs and privacy concerns.
"We also would have to factor in how such a system would be weighed against other pressing priorities for our limited time and resources," Sgt. Heather Randol said.
Privacy groups say the latest proposal is part of a broader trend toward a world where authorities have more surveillance access to places that once were considered private.
"To me the really interesting and troublesome part of it is the way we are starting to privatize government surveillance -- to enlist private citizens in a way that is kind of unprecedented and could be potentially really dangerous," said Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. "Once you give the police unfettered access 24/7, you're relying on them to exercise their restraint."
Retired judge LaDoris Cordell, the city's independent police auditor, said the proposal is the next logical extension of technological advances that have helped provide cops with more video of crimes. It's common now for onlookers to take cellphone videos of officers, and the San Jose Police Department is working on a new program to equip officers with body-worn cameras.
"You tend to behave when the cameras are on you," Cordell said. She doesn't see the idea so much as an "intrusion on privacy" but as a way for residents to "know what's going on in their neighborhood."
San Jose would join big cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago and small towns such as nearby Los Gatos and Monte Sereno that recently have launched similar initiatives.
About 600 Philadelphia business owners and residents have signed up with the program since it was launched two years ago, helping lead to 200 arrests based on videos from their cameras, said Philadelphia police officer Jillian Russell.
The Los Gatos/Monte Sereno Police Department, which just started its database a few months ago, has 30 property owners signed up, said Officer Catherine Mann.
"We haven't had any negative responses, once we get it out to them that this is not a 'Big Brother' " situation, Mann said. "We're not sitting around watching live videos from their home."
Liccardo knows he faces a similar privacy challenge in trying to get the plan approved in San Jose in the coming months but insists cops will not be viewing live feeds.
Also part of the political calculation is the fact that three of his colleagues also are running for mayor: Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen, Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio and Councilwoman Rose Herrera. In addition, Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese is running and has criticized the current administration for San Jose's rising crime rate.
Liccardo dismissed the idea that the proposal was politically motivated, saying it's about protecting residents.
©2014 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)