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San Diego Public Safety Committee Supports Streetlight Plan

The city's Public Safety Committee has voted to support the San Diego Police Department's controversial smart streetlight proposal this week. The technology, complete with license plate readers, was first pitched in March.

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(TNS) — The city's Public Safety Committee voted to support the San Diego Police Department's smart streetlight proposal on Wednesday, bringing the divisive tech one step closer to installation.

The department first proposed installing the cameras — 500 of them, all equipped with automated license plate reader technology — in March. If the City Council approves the plan, the city would become the largest in the country to use cameras and plate readers as part of a single network, police officials have said.

The cameras would be located across San Diego, with the highest concentrations in District 8, which includes communities like Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, Otay Mesa, and District 3, which encompasses Hillcrest, North Park and downtown San Diego.

Three committee members, Councilmembers Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo and Jennifer Campbell voted in favor of the proposal. Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe voted against it.

"I think this is what's needed to protect public safety, protect victims, and protect people who are innocent and wrongly accused," said von Wilpert, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, at Wednesday's meeting.

Montgomery Steppe stressed that while she's not against the use of technology to help police officers do their jobs, she feels strongly that these tools require another layer of accountability.

"This process was wasn't just intended to be a checklist, it was intended to be thorough," she said. "It was intended to promote collaboration with community members."

Speakers who opposed the technology said on Wednesday that they worried the technology would invade people's privacy and lead to overpolicing in communities of color. Many said they didn't trust the police to be good stewards of such powerful tools.

"How will this impact my community? How will this impact folks who have various immigration statuses in my community? How will this impact and criminalize other members of our community?" said Homayra Yusufi, interim executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans. "And what we have seen with the streetlights and (license plate readers) is that there is not enough information for us to feel that these technologies will be used in a way that will not harm us."

Yusufi's organization is one of many that came together to form TRUST SD, a coalition of community groups that helped craft the city's new surveillance ordinance. Passed in September, the law requires technologies like smart streetlights be vetted before they're put to use.

Under the new law, city departments are required to disclose their surveillance technologies and compile reports outlining how those tools are used and their impact on communities.

That information then makes its way to the newly formed Privacy Advisory Board — a volunteer panel tasked with vetting the city's technologies — and, subsequently, to the City Council.

Last month, the Privacy Board voted to recommend to city officials that they not allow the streetlight program to move forward. The City Council will decide whether to side with the board or the Public Safety Committee in the coming weeks.

On Wednesday, police and city officials praised smart streetlights for their effectiveness. They cited the technology's positive impact on police work as the reason for pursuing their installation.

"Bringing back the use of Smart Streetlights will be a game changer for the San Diego Police Department," San Diego police Chief David Nisleit said in a statement. "Investigators will be able to narrow in on suspects more quickly and with greater precision."

In 2016, City Council members signed off on a $30 million project that pledged to use 3,000 energy-saving smart streetlights to assess traffic and parking patterns throughout the city. What the public didn't know — and wouldn't know for years — was that the technology came with cameras that could be accessed by police.

The resulting outcry — based on concerns about privacy and equity — led San Diego to shut down the network and fueled the creation of the surveillance ordinance and the Privacy Advisory Board.

Before losing access to the technology, police had used footage from the smart streetlights to investigate hundreds of cases, including 56 homicides or attempted homicides, 55 robberies or burglaries and 55 assaults involving a weapon.

The ones installed in San Ysidro helped investigators zero-in on a suspected gunman in the Nov. 6, 2019 shootings of three Church's Chicken workers, one of whom was killed. The shooter, Albert Lee Blake, was found guilty of murder and attempted murder and sentenced to 146 years to life in prison in November 2021.

In downtown San Diego, they helped identify a man suspected of donning a costume mask and fatally shooting a business owner in October 2018.

Police officials also accessed streetlights 35 times to gather evidence against demonstrators suspected of committing crimes during protests held in the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020.

Although many acknowledge the technology's potential as a crime-fighting tool, groups like the Privacy Advisory Board and others, have found the police department's proposal lacking.

When the Privacy Advisory Board voted down the initiative last month, members said they felt the department hadn't provided enough information about various aspects of the plan, including the purpose or goals of the streetlight program, how data would be collected and safeguarded, who would have access to the information gathered, how those individuals would be trained, and how the effectiveness of the technology would be assessed.

They also took issue with the fact that although department officials said they planned to install cameras made by Ubicquia, a telecommunications company, no information had been provided about the vendor that would supply the accompanying automated license plate reader technology.

On Wednesday, police officials said they would be pursuing a license plate reader contract with Flock Safety, which has partnered with more than 2,000 law enforcement departments, according to its website.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.