In a 7-4 vote, the board agreed to pilot a controversial plan overhauling surveillance practices. The trial will last only 15 months, with a second vote necessary if the supervisors wish to extend or revise the policy.
Under the new policy put forward by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, the SFPD can access up to 24 hours of live outdoor footage from private surveillance cameras without a warrant – as long as the camera owner consents.
However, police must meet one of three outlined criteria:
Breed initially proposed the overhaul of surveillance practices before the end of last year as a way to crack down on retail theft, rioting, looting and drug dealing. Supervisor Aaron Peskin filed a competing proposal alongside other supervisors, but a compromise was eventually reached.
San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins expressed support for the new policy through a letter to Peskin. (Related: Voters in liberal San Francisco RECALL anti-cop, soft-on-crime DA Chesa Boudin.)
"I believe this policy can help address the existence of open-air drug markets fueling the sale of the deadly drug fentanyl," she wrote. "Drug dealers are destroying people's lives and wreaking havoc on neighborhoods like the Tenderloin. Mass organized retail theft, like we saw in Union Square last year, or targeted neighborhood efforts like we've seen in Chinatown is another area where the proposed policy can help."
However, the policy received blowback from groups such as the Bar Association of San Francisco and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They expressed concern that the policy could be abused by law enforcement.
The ACLU of Northern California said it was "very troubled" by the supervisors' votes, warning that the policy they approved can threaten people's rights.
"Civil rights are certainly under attack nationally. It is concerning that San Francisco, which is the city that historically has been a refuge for the oppressed and a celebrated center of activism, would move this policy forward," said ACLU attorney Jennifer Jones.
Moreover, Jones pointed out that the new surveillance authority is even more troubling given the number of cameras that had been funded by one donor – cryptocurrency mogul Chris Larsen.
Larsen has reportedly spent around $4 million to buy over 1,000 security cameras in the city in what he described as an effort to combat crime. The cameras are clustered in business districts such as the Fisherman's Wharf, Japantown, Lower Polk, Mid-Market, the Tenderloin and Union Square.
"I'm from San Francisco, and I believe in this city. In many ways, tech has contributed to the disparity and problems that we see in San Francisco today," Larsen said in a statement.
"As members of the community, I believe it's our job to help solve these problems by reinvesting in the city and making it safe."
While the cameras are paid for by Larsen, the networks are monitored and run by coalitions known as community benefit districts. These coalitions ultimately have to agree to give the SFPD access to their cameras under the new policy.
"The fact that there is a very vast private camera surveillance network infrastructure already in place does make the passage of this policy very concerning," Jones said.
In spite of the controversy, the seven supervisors who voted in support of the program are standing by their decision. Peskin, who was among the seven, said that although he realized the program may be offensive to some, he is still "willing to give it a try."
Visit Surveillance.news to know more about San Francisco's new surveillance policies.
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