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San Diego Mayor Orders Smart Streetlights Turned Off

San Diego's controversial Smart Streetlight cameras will be shut off, drawing applause from social justice activists, but removing police access to a tool they say helps solve violent crimes.

by Teri Figueroa, The San Diego Union-Tribune / September 10, 2020
The City of San Diego has already installed thousands of "Smart Street Lamps" that include an array of sensors including video and audio that is used by law enforcement and other city entities. On Friday August 2, 2019, these camera arrays, mounted on the "cobra head" style street lamps were photographed in North Park at the corner of Illinois and El Cajon Blvd. The street lamp style lights are downtown.1 TNS

(TNS) — San Diego's controversial Smart Streetlight cameras will be shut off, drawing applause from social justice activists, but removing police access to a tool they say helps solve violent crimes.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer on Wednesday ordered that the more than 3,000 cameras installed on streetlights throughout San Diego be turned off until the city crafts an ordinance to govern surveillance technology.

Mayoral spokesman Gustavo Portela said Faulconer made the call "following clear feedback" from council members and community leaders, who pressed to get a surveillance ordinance in place before the City Council considers using such technology.

The surprise announcement came days after the city floated a plan to hand over the camera management and access exclusively to police — a plan that drew immediate pushback from corners of the community for its lack of public oversight. The city hit the brakes on that plan hours before Faulconer's decision was announced — also a surprise.

Pulling the plug on the cameras is the latest turn in the short but twisty history of San Diego's $30 million Smart Streetlights. The project was initially introduced to the public in 2016 as a plan to upgrade LED lights to save money and energy.

But the Smart Streetlights were more than lights. They included streetlight-mounted cameras and technologically advanced sensors with the ability to turn video images of cars and people into valuable data the city could use — thus the "smart" in Smart Streetlights.

The data was collected, but the uses the city thought might follow never materialized. However, while it was not part of the initial plan, police later began to review the raw camera footage to help solve serious or violent crime.

Then last year, people realized there were cameras in the streetlights. Controversy erupted. Activists raised fears of potential surveillance and civil rights abuses, and over-policing in communities of color, and they wanted the cameras off until the city established methods for transparency, oversight and accountability.

On Wednesday, Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a member of a coalition of groups concerned about the cameras, said the decision to turn them off for now means the community won what it had sought.

"Never underestimate the power of community members who come together in the name of (d)emocracy," she wrote in an email. "There is work to be done and we remain vigilant. We will not get off our posts."

The city has been working to craft surveillance oversight ordinances for several months. It is not clear when one might be ready.

The decision to stop using the cameras also comes as San Diego and Ubicquia, the company that owns the technology behind the special sensors, try to hammer out a new contract.

The city has not collected mobility or environmental data from the Smart Streetlights for months. Ubicquia turned the sensors off when the contract ended in June.

But Ubicquia did agree to keep the cameras rolling so police could access footage if needed.

Last week, the city pitched a plan: The data-collection costs outweighed the benefits, so maybe the sensors should stay off, and the camera management could be handed over to the city's Police Department.

The cameras were useful to police, who accessed the raw footage at least 400 times in the last two years. They hailed the cameras as a game-changer, and said the images helped to identify the suspected gunman who shot three employees, killing one, last year at an Otay Mesa Church's Chicken.

One police official said last week that the cameras are such an important asset, the department was willing to absorb the $7 million cost to run them for the next four years.

But when the plan was made public, activities called it "tone deaf," especially as it comes as the protests against police bias and racial injustice roil the region and the country.

On Wednesday, the head of the Sustainability Department, which runs the Smart Streetlights, was slated to go in front of the city's Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee and pitch the hand-off plan. Instead, Department Director Cody Hooven asked the committee to pull the item from its agenda. She said the city would "further assess our options."

Shortly after the item was pulled from the agenda, but before Faulconer's announcement, the council member who heads the Public Safety & Livable Neighbhorhoods Committee praised Hooven's decision to hold off.

In a written statement, Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe said the issue "is not whether surveillance technology can be used as a public safety tool. The issue is transparency within SDPD."

"Every decision that we make, in this moment, will either build trust with the community or tear it down," she said, saying it is "imperative" to have oversight in place. "No decision should be made until that framework is in place."

Police referred comment on the decision to turn off the cameras to the mayor's office.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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