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S.F. to Vote on Expanding Police Access to Surveillance Cameras

Mayor London Breed’s two-part proposed ballot measure would ask residents to vote on broadened police access to live feeds and allowing police camera access in “public safety crisis areas,” which would include privately owned cameras.

(TNS) — Mayor London Breed on Tuesday filed a ballot measure that will ask San Franciscans to expand and clarify the circumstances under which police can monitor surveillance cameras in real time, advancing a key element of her plan to crack down on crime in the Tenderloin and citywide.

The measure is twofold: One portion seeks to broaden the instances in which police can access live feeds, adding certain property crimes like organized retail theft, looting and rioting to a list of "critical events" that qualify. Current law, under a 2019 ordinance on that limits city use of surveillance technology, states that only emergencies that involve danger of death or serious injury can bypass an approval process with the Board of Supervisors.

The second portion would allow police camera access in "public safety crisis areas," which would include spaces known for open-air drug markets or where there has been a documented spike in violent crimes. The measure involves privately owned security cameras placed throughout the city.

"The criminal activity at issue is not victimless," Breed said in a statement. "We are talking about violent crimes, including property crimes that are being perpetrated more frequently with the use of guns, getaway vehicles, and other weapons that can seriously injure or even kill innocent bystanders."

The mayor's ballot measure has already drawn scrutiny from privacy advocates and supporters of the 2019 surveillance technology ordinance.

Saira Hussain, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation — a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses on privacy protections — said she believes the proposal was "poorly drafted, and introduces a loophole large enough to render the surveillance technology ordinance meaningless."

"The ordinance as it stands allows for exigency when there is a danger to life or serious physical harm to a person," Hussain said. "What the mayor's proposal tries to do is expand that to the point (that) basically exigency can mean almost anything."

Hussain is the lead attorney in a lawsuit against that city that alleges police have violated the surveillance technology ordinance.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who wrote the 2019 legislation, said on Tuesday evening he had not yet seen the mayor's proposal and would comment once he had a chance to review it.

The ballot measure will be up for a vote in June, mayor's officials said.

Officials at the Mayor's office said the mayor's plan includes oversight from the Police Commission and the Department of Police Accountability, and they stressed that the policy would not allow police monitoring of peaceful protests or lawful assemblies.

Breed announced her intent to introduce a camera ordinance last month, but details of the proposal were made public on Tuesday with her filing of the ballot measure. The mayor's camera ordinance will be introduced at the Board of Supervisors meeting next Tuesday.

Mayor's officials said the 2019 ordinance lacked clarity and hindered police's ability "to effectively deter, respond and investigate criminal activity," and that nearby jurisdictions already allowed live monitoring of cameras.

"We can give our law enforcement the tools they need, while also maintaining strong oversight and safeguards to ensure these tools are used appropriately to address dangerous criminal activity," Breed said.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott praised Breed's proposal, saying police are currently "hamstrung" without access to certain technologies.

"We can't continue to put the San Francisco Police Department at a disadvantage by prohibiting or needlessly complicating our access to industry-standard police technology when necessary," Scott said in a statement. "Without the commonsense amendments Mayor Breed is proposing, San Francisco will become an increasingly easy target for organized criminal activities."

The proposal comes nearly two months after a series of flash-mob-style robberies in San Francisco's Union Square and other nearby cities drew national attention to the Bay Area. City officials said that because of the current law, police commanders were forced to instruct officers not to monitor live camera feeds while the crimes were underway.

Most of the media attention surrounding the 2019 surveillance ordinance centered on a provision that barred city officials from using facial recognition technology. That portion of the ordinance would stay in place under the mayor's revamp, mayor's officials said.

The police department has already come under fire for what civil rights organizations say was a violation of this law following protests over the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. In a lawsuit against the city, plaintiffs' attorneys claim that San Francisco police accessed real-time surveillance footage from private cameras in the Union Square area without first obtaining necessary approval from the Board of Supervisors.

Activists suing the city are represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

City Attorney David Chiu argued that that the plaintiffs sued to enforce a "far more restricted (and imaginary) version of that legislation than plaintiffs evidently wish the Board had enacted."

(c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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