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San Francisco Sued for Allegedly Video Surveilling Protests

Civil rights activists filed the lawsuit against the city for allegedly tapping into over 400 privately owned surveillance cameras to track the protests over police brutality earlier this year.

(TNS) — Civil rights organizations and activists sued San Francisco on Wednesday, alleging police illegally tapped into a network of more than 400 surveillance cameras to keep track of police-brutality protesters this spring.

The suit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, centered on the demonstrations that immediately followed the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, when thousands in San Francisco and elsewhere took to the streets to protest police violence against Black and brown people.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys claim that from May 31 to June 7, 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.

A 2019 San Francisco ordinance bans city agencies from using, borrowing or acquiring surveillance technology without prior approval from supervisors in all but emergency circumstances. The cameras tied to the suit are owned and operated by a private entity, the Union Square Business Improvement District. Hope Williams, an activist who organized a June 2 protest in San Francisco and who serves as the case’s lead plaintiff, said tapping the surveillance cameras was “a tactic to keep people from speaking out.”

Williams and two other activists suing the city are represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation — a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses on privacy protections — and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Saira Hussain, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said such dragnet police monitoring could cause a chilling effect on future demonstrations.

“It makes it so that people think twice before they venture out to these protests,” she said. “It makes the job harder for organizers like Hope, who try to bring people out and get them to participate and speak up to try to end police violence against Black communities.”

The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages, but rather a court order that would compel police to follow the city ban on surveillance technologies.

San Francisco police declined to comment on the lawsuit, deferring instead to the City Attorney’s Office. A spokesman for the office provided two letters in which San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott addresses the incident to members of the Board of Supervisors.

In the letters, Scott stated that the looting and civil unrest following some of the early protests warranted an “exigent circumstance” that would allow police to bypass supervisor approval.

While Scott acknowledged that the department’s Homeland Security Unit requested a live-feed link to the camera network on May 31, he said it was not ultimately used.

“The remote link was requested ... to access only if the arson, violence and looting continued,” Scott wrote in a Sept. 9 response to inquiries by Supervisor Aaron Peskin. “The criminal activity did not continue in the (camera network’s) service area, subsequently HSU did not monitor any activity, including first amendment activities, through the remote live access link.”

Hussain said the city ordinance allows police to receive a tip, “including a piece of surveillance footage from a non-city actor,” without previous board approval. Such is often the case when police receive security camera footage of a specific crime or suspect.

“But this case isn’t about a tip or even a targeted investigation, Hussain said. “It’s about SFPD harvesting a private camera network for an entire week of dragnet, real-time surveillance, in blatant violation of the law.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that there was no exigent circumstance that exempted the department from obtaining approval to tap the camera feeds. San Francisco code defines “exigent circumstances” as emergencies involving “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury” to any person.

The suit comes just weeks after police were accused of potentially violating another surveillance-related ordinance by circumventing a ban on facial-recognition technology. Police said another agency proactively provided its own facial-recognition results after San Francisco police sent out a crime alert bulletin with a photo of a gun suspect.

The results were later used by San Francisco police to build a case against the suspect, who was charged with assault with a semiautomatic firearm, discharge of a firearm with gross negligence and other gun charges. Prosecutors are now reviewing whether the case can be supported by other, independent evidence.

Emails obtained and released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in July show how San Francisco police requested and were granted access to the Union Square Business Improvement District’s web of cameras, which include remote zoom and focus capabilities. The network covers blocks from Bush and Market streets to the north and south, and from Taylor and Mason streets to Kearny Street going west to east.

Business improvement districts, also called community benefit districts, are run by clusters of property owners who tax themselves to pay for services beyond what the city provides, like extra street cleaning or homelessness outreach.

The suit states that on the morning of May 31, an officer from San Francisco Police Department’s Homeland Security Unit emailed the Union Square Business Improvement District to request real-time access to its cameras on Market Street “to monitor the potential violence today for situational awareness and enhanced response.”

An email response that same morning shows the district allowed police 48-hour access to remote use of the cameras, according to the suit.

A follow-up email from police on June 2 requested a five-day extension of the access, stating, “We have several planned (demonstrations) all week and we anticipate several more over the weekend.” This request was also granted, according to the lawsuit.

On June 10, the suit states, an officer sent another email to the district thanking it for “the use of your cameras.” The cameras, the officer stated, “were extremely helpful in giving us situational awareness and ensuring public safety during the multiple demos that came through the area.”

It is unclear from the suit exactly what police obtained, but the cameras would have likely captured at least one of the plaintiffs’ protests during the dates police had apparent access. That demonstration began at City Hall and marched east on Market Street, “including past areas where USBID’s cameras are located,” the suit states.

Representatives from the business improvement district did not respond to requests for comment.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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