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Community Voices Concern Over San Diego Streetlight Cams

A coalition of community groups called on leaders to reject a proposal they fear would put thousands of streetlight cameras in the hands of the San Diego Police without proper transparency, oversight or accountability.

San Diego smart streetlight
City of San Diego
(TNS) — A coalition of community groups on Tuesday called on city leaders to reject a proposal they fear would put thousands of streetlight cameras in the hands of the San Diego Police Department without proper transparency, oversight or accountability.

Under the proposal — which will be considered by a City Council committee Wednesday — the city would officially abandon the use of the so-called "smart" streetlight cameras to collect data on weather and bicycle and traffic patterns because the cost outweighs the benefits. Instead, it would hand off the cameras to the Police Department, which uses footage recorded by the cameras to investigate crimes.

Police have hailed the cameras as a game-changer, and say they've helped solved homicides, including leading them to identify the suspected gunman who shot three employees, killing one, last year at a Church's Chicken in Otay Mesa. They do not monitor them in real-time, but only look at them after a crime.

The bid to hand a surveillance tool over to police for their sole use comes as the city and the nation face unrest and protests regarding racial injustice and police bias. It also comes as the city works to craft ordinances to govern all surveillance in San Diego — ordinances born in large part out of public pushback against the streetlight cameras.

A year ago, community members began raising concerns about the cameras' potential for surveillance, civil rights abuses and overpolicing in communities of color.

At a news conference Tuesday, Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a member of a coalition of groups concerned about the cameras, criticized the timing of the proposal, calling it "tone deaf."

"We cannot ignore the climate we're in," she said, adding that there is a lack of trust in police within the community.

Jones-Wright and other coalition members characterized the cameras as a mass surveillance system without rules to establish transparency, oversight and accountability. At the moment, the only rules in place are a policy developed by the Police Department.

"We cannot trust the police to police the police," said Jones-Wright, an attorney and executive director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance.

Laid out last week in a report to the Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee, the proposal to shift the streetlights program comes as city staffers seek approval to alter city contracts with Ubicquia, the company that provides the services for the Smart Streetlights program.

The city's Sustainability Department would turn over the program to the Police Department, which would would cover the costs, estimated at $7 million over the next four years.

Last week, the department stood by its desire to keep the cameras rolling, and said it would absorb the cost.

"The technology has time and time again been incredibly useful for us to solve crimes that we would not have been able to solve," said police Capt. Jeffrey Jordon, who oversees the department's access to the images.

Tuesday's news conference with coalition members — which included Jean-Huy Tran of We The People SD, Seth Hall of TechLEAD San Diego and Homarya Yusufi of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans — was outside the now-infamous office tower at 101 Ash Street. The city agreed to pay $127 million over the next 20 years for the high-rise, a building that sits empty because it requires repairs.

Jones-Wright said the building represents "the city rushing into making deals" without knowing or caring about possible ramifications. She called the streetlight program "the tech version of 101 Ash."

The Smart Streetlights were initially part of a $30 million program to install cost- and energy-saving streetlights, a plan the city OK'd in 2016.

But, it would later be revealed, the program also called for mounting cameras on the lights. The cameras have special sensors that take raw video footage and turn it into data, to track information such as foot and car traffic or weather.

In April 2018, police learned of the cameras. In August of that year, they were allowed to start accessing the footage. In the two years since, the department has accessed the network of 3,000 cameras some 400 times.

The city has not collected mobility or environmental data from Smart Streetlights for months. The high-tech sensors that turned video into data were shut off earlier this year amid contract negotiations with Ubicquia. However, the company agreed to keep the cameras on, so police could access footage if needed.

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