IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Is San Francisco's Use of Surveillance Cameras Working?

Despite criticism, the city passed legislation for a 15-month surveillance pilot program that greatly expanded the powers of police to temporarily monitor live video feeds from privately owned cameras.

The San Francisco skyline.
(TNS) — Two years ago, Mayor London Breed railed against limitations on the Police Department's ability to monitor live private security cameras, arguing that officers weren't able to access real-time video during high-profile incidents of mass retail thefts in Union Square.

"There were multiple robbery crews hitting multiple stores; they couldn't even access those cameras, which is ridiculous," she said in December 2021.

Breed went on to sponsor legislation for a controversial 15-month surveillance pilot program that greatly expanded the powers of the police to temporarily monitor live video feeds from privately owned cameras for up to 24 hours at a time without a warrant. Critics say the program could lead to the infringement of people's privacy rights.

Nine months of newly released data from the program compiled in three quarterly reports show that police made two arrests related to two separate homicides in the Tenderloin, 11 arrests related to assaults, "violent offenses," theft and obstructing a police officer, and 53 narcotics-related arrests, most of them for dealing. Of the 65 total arrests, the district attorney's office filed charges on 29. Of those, 14 were listed as pending, five were noted as "fugitive status," six led to convictions and four did not list a case status, according to the office's incident data dashboard.

Breed's office said live monitoring "is working by supporting our police investigations to solve murders, disrupt drug dealings and get violent offenders off our streets." The department touted the data as proof of the effectiveness of live video monitoring in dealing with San Francisco's "most pernicious crimes."

But nearly a year into the experiment, it remains unclear just how effective the strategy of using private cameras is in fighting crime in San Francisco, in part because the Police Department's disclosures don't provide information on how live footage was used, how it led to arrests and whether police could have used other methods to make those arrests.

Under the pilot program, police can request up to 24 hours of access to live surveillance video in three circumstances: to respond to a life-threatening emergency, to decide how to deploy officers during a large event with public safety concerns, and to conduct a criminal investigation if allowed for in writing by a captain or higher-ranking police official.

During the nine-month period, 75 police officers, 24 sergeants, two lieutenants and two captains viewed about 250 hours of live footage during more than 50 "live monitoring operations" in places like downtown San Francisco, the Tenderloin, South of Market, Golden Gate Park and the Richmond and Sunset districts. The police made 49 requests for access to live camera footage, and only one was denied, for undisclosed reasons.

The surveillance data gives a glimpse into how the Police Department uses tools like live monitoring to fight crime at a time that Breed is again pushing to expand police powers and allow use of new surveillance tools and technology through Proposition E on the March ballot.

But critics say the program and new data raise questions. ACLU attorney Matt Cagle told the Chronicle the data is confusing and has holes. For example, the police did not share information that explains how the live footage resulted in arrests or solved crimes.

Cagle added that the report also appears to overlook reporting requirements under the law establishing the pilot. It does not include the justification for granting access to private cameras, whether the images were used to bring criminal charges, the types of charges brought and the results of the charges, he said.

The Police Department said in a statement that the use of private cameras has "also helped our homicide unit arrest murder suspects, helping the SFPD reach an 85% clearance rate last year for homicides, which is well above the national average," the statement says. The department added that live monitoring allows police officers to "view crimes in progress and locate wanted suspects."

By far the longest monitoring session was during the Outside Lands Music Festival in August in Golden Gate Park, when officers watched 42 total hours of live footage. Police were able to make five arrests for theft, pickpocketing and resisting an officer during that time, but it's unclear what other use police had for the nearly two consecutive days of live media feeds during the festival. Only one of those five arrests led the DA's office to file charges. That case is listed as pending.

"It's a stunning example of SFPD looking at an event of people and just requesting wide access to cameras," Cagle said.

The department and mayor's office are touting the release of live-feed use as proof of its effectiveness in fighting crime. The reports could help Breed boost support for Proposition E, which would allow police to install public surveillance cameras and use drones and facial recognition technology to fight crime, among other changes.

But for Cagle, police surveillance trends are troubling and show that officers are doing more surveillance, not less, while its "reporting standards" are going down.

"Low-income communities of color are more likely to be surveilled than white communities. And, as the records show, the SFPD is willing to aim the cameras at everything from concerts to protests against police violence," Cagle said.

Increasing surveillance under Proposition E "may sound like movement in a mayoral press release," Cagle added. But "it's a sad substitute for public safety."

© 2024 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.