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San Diego City Council Approves Surveillance Tech Ordinance

Under the terms of a recently approved ordinance, the city council must approve the use of technology that can monitor and identify individuals. The policy came out of controversy surrounding surveillance tech across the city.

Images recorded by this Smart Street Light camera were used in the investigation of an assault with a deadly weapon case in July of 2019, Photo taken on February 26, 2020.
John Gibbins/TNS
(TNS) — After years of work to create oversight of surveillance technology in San Diego, an ordinance that will govern how the city uses the technology got a final approval from the City Council on Monday.

The work began after residents learned in 2019 that the city had installed a network of about 3,000 cameras on streetlights three years earlier, and that police turned to the technology to investigate certain types of crimes.

Under the ordinance, the City Council must approve the use of technology that can monitor and identify individuals. City staff will need to issue reports that outline the intended use of such technology, and the public and a newly created privacy advisory board will be asked to weigh in.

The council will reconsider the use of the technology annually.

The ordinance includes a one-year grace period, which is intended to give the city time to assemble the privacy advisory board and allow city departments to take a look at their inventory. Departments — the San Diego Police Department, for example — will need to seek approval to continue to use any technologies that fall under the ordinance.

San Diego police Capt. Jeffrey Jordon said the department uses a host of technological devices that will require approval, including body-worn cameras, polygraphs and forensic lab equipment.

"I'm not aware of any other cities in America that have to report out this many pieces of technology," he said.

He said Mayor Todd Gloria's office has offered to assist the department to ensure it is able to take the necessary steps to comply with the regulations.

The ordinance includes an exemption for police officers on federal task forces, at the request of police Chief David Nisleit. The chief told the City Council that federal agencies bar task force members from disclosing information about their use of surveillance technology. The ordinance, without the exemption, would mean effectively that San Diego police could no longer work on federal task forces, Nisleit said.

Several residents, including members of marginalized communities, expressed concern about the revision, saying they feared the FBI could monitor them, but council members voted 5-4 in June to move forward with the exemption. Council President Sean Elo-Rivera asked that city staff look into potential amendments.

The City Council first approved the ordinance in November 2020. Several employees groups invoked their right to review the regulations before the council considered them for final approval — a review process that took 18 months.

On Monday, the council unanimously approved the ordinance as part of its consent calendar.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.