Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

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

San Francisco Police May Access Video from Private Cameras

They will be allowed to temporarily monitor live video feeds from privately owned surveillance cameras in certain circumstances without first obtaining a warrant under a new policy.

(TNS) — San Francisco police will be allowed to temporarily monitor live video feeds from privately owned surveillance cameras in certain circumstances under controversial legislation approved by city supervisors.

The legislation authorizes a new 15-month surveillance policy for the San Francisco Police Department that spells out the conditions in which officers can view real-time security camera video — without first obtaining a warrant — if businesses or homeowners grant permission.

Approved in a 7-4 vote Tuesday, Sept. 20, by the Board of Supervisors, the policy reflects a compromise between Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Aaron Peskin, both of whom had at one point planned to put competing surveillance measures on the June 7 ballot. Breed and Peskin pulled their measures before the ballot was finalized and then negotiated a legislative deal with the police department.

Under the policy authorized by the legislation, 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 SFPD official.

Without the new policy, local law is much more restrictive in how police can access live feeds on privately-owned security cameras, according to Breed's office.

The policy was strongly opposed by various community members and some organizations, including the Bar Association of San Francisco. Critics feared that the policy could allow for unchecked mass surveillance that would trample on the privacy rights of local residents and visitors alike.

The police and the policy's leading supporters disputed that characterization and cast the legislation as an effort to help officers do their jobs better without conducting overly broad monitoring.

"We've collectively made an effort to balance the public realm and civil liberties with the police department's use of technologies to make our city safer," Peskin told The Chronicle before the vote.

Peskin sponsored a successful 2019 law that requires city departments using surveillance technologies to develop policies governing their use and submit them for approval by supervisors.

The police department had not submitted its policy by late last year when Breed declared her intent to boost police resources as part of a broader response to public drug dealing in the Tenderloin and high-profile retail thefts in Union Square and elsewhere. Breed at the time indicated that she wanted to give police easier access to security feeds — a goal she first sought to accomplish through her proposed ballot measure before she scrapped it and compromised with Peskin instead.

The policy approved by supervisors was submitted pursuant to the 2019 surveillance law. Breed sponsored the relevant legislation and it was co-sponsored by Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Ahsha Safaí.

Supervisors Connie Chan, Dean Preston, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton voted against the legislation, echoing some of the concerns about privacy and excessive surveillance that opponents had voiced in earlier public hearings.

Ronen tried unsuccessfully to strip the legislation's provision allowing the police to use live feeds from private security cameras when deciding how to deploy staff during high-profile events. She said she wanted to prevent officers from using those surveillance abilities against protesters.

"That is not a power that I feel comfortable giving," Ronen said at Tuesday's board meeting. "It feels to me like we're yet again giving away more power for, in this case, the police department to surveil our activities when we're expressing our opinion against the government. That's becoming a scarier and scarier thing to do in this country."

Under the approved policy, SFPD leaders will be required to submit quarterly reports of live-monitoring requests to supervisors and the Police Commission, with a more comprehensive surveillance report mandated after a year has passed.

The policy will only be in place for 15 months after it becomes effective, likely in November. A subsequent vote by supervisors will be required if they want to extend or revise the policy.

"Our residents and small businesses want us focused on keeping San Francisco safe for everyone who lives and works in the City," Breed said in a statement. "This is a sensible policy that balances the need to give our police officers another tool to address significant public safety challenges and to hold those who break the law accountable."

Business leaders and affiliated groups such as the Mid Market Community Benefit District and the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations came out in strong support of the surveillance policy, saying they wanted police to be able to access private security cameras in response to drug dealing, thefts and other crimes.

But the San Francisco bar association, which represents thousands of local attorneys and law firms, issued a blistering critique of the surveillance policy.

Yolanda Jackson, the group's executive director, signed a seven-page letter to supervisors this month saying that the proposed version of the policy was too vague and far-reaching and would violate residents' privacy by giving police "access to an ever-growing (and potentially limitless) network of cameras" from a central location without restrictions to prevent unlimited tracking.

"Public safety can be achieved without abandoning residents' Constitutional rights in favor of unprecedented levels of surveillance," Jackson wrote on behalf of the association.

Police Chief Bill Scott responded with his own letter attempting to refute some of the bar association's claims.

"SFPD continues to make incident-based requests and does not and will not have a central location where SFPD officers can tap into a network of surveillance systems owned by non-city entities or individuals," Scott said in the letter.

He said the policy "simply affirms that individuals and businesses in San Francisco can choose to share their video footage relating to a criminal investigation with SFPD and assist the Department with addressing criminal activity in this city."

The new policy also affirms SFPD's already-common practice of asking for historical video from privately-owned cameras while investigating crimes or potential officer misconduct.

Peskin told his fellow supervisors at Tuesday's meeting that the 2019 law will require SFPD to submit additional policies about other kinds of surveillance technology beyond privately-owned security cameras.

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