The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 7-4 earlier this week okaying Mayor London Breed’s plan to allow the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to access private security cameras.
Previously, the SFPD was only allowed to request access to private cameras based on specific needs or in the aftermath of a crime. The only way this could ever be overridden was in the event of something imminent, such as a terrorist attack. The SFPD would then have to send in reports every quarter outlining every time cameras were accessed and for what reason. In addition, under the previous rules, the SFPD only had access for up to 24 hours before being thrown off the private access.
However, a major rise in crime in the last few years, rampant drug activity, and a large shortage of police officers made Mayor London Breed and some County Supervisors to begin to rethink that policy last year. While a few sides tried their own proposals around allowing camera access, Mayor Breed’s proposal won out and was sent to the Board of Supervisors earlier this year.
Under the then-proposed ordinance, the SFPD will be allowed up to 24 hours of live outdoor footage from private security cameras owned by citizens of the city or businesses there without a warrant. However, the cameras owner must still allow the police to access the camera and it can only be done for one of three reasons. These include criminal investigations where camera access is approved by an SFPD captain or higher, figuring out how to place officers during a large public event, or responding to a life-or-death emergency.
The ordinance will last only 15 months as a trial, with another vote being needed to extend it or make it permanent.
The issue of passing the ordinance polarized the city. Police and many public officials wanted the additional access, especially because of how it could be applied to bringing criminals to justice and how it could break up drug markets in the city.
However, many Supervisors, as well as privacy and civil liberty groups such as the ACLU were up in arms over the proposed ordinance, with many even forming a coalition against it. According to the Coalition, over 60% of voters in the city opposed the ordinance, with many unsure about the far-reaching consequences it might bring, as well as concerns over how they would use the access against people exercising first amendment rights and wanting access clarifications and additional limits.
“We urge you to oppose or significantly amend this policy to prevent widespread surveillance of San Francisco residents based on the false premise that cameras increase public safety, “said the coalition in a letter earlier this year. “We are deeply concerned that SFPD’s proposal, if approved as written, threatens the privacy and safety of people going to work and school, accessing housing and seeking social services that
make our city healthy and safe. The majority of San Francisco residents agree — a recent independent poll shows 60% of likely November 2022 voters, across major demographic and partisan lines, oppose giving the SFPD live access to surveillance cameras at private businesses, in public streets and spaces, and people’s homes.”
Despite the majority of the city in opposition, the Board of Supervisors narrowly passed the ordinance 7-4 on Tuesday, with many backing it in the name of public safety. Following the vote, Supervisor Shamann Walton, who voted against the ordinance, noted that “I know the thought process is, ‘Just trust us, just trust the police department.’ But the reality is people have been violating civil liberties since my ancestors were brought here from an entirely, completely different continent.”
Many others expressed frustration following the bills passage as well.
“The city was just not doing their job, so the solution was to come one more step closer to big brother by giving the police access to private cameras,” expressed Rene Martin, a local business owner in San Francisco, to the Globe on Thursday. “We had a local business meeting a few weeks ago where we discussed this ordinance, and everyone seemed to talk about it being temporary and the police needing permission to access your cameras. Everyone was worried that a future bill would just remove permissions.
“Everyone is concerned about this, and I don’t think Breed realized just how many people hate this idea. I mean, we all want to reduce crime. But this is way too far for many, and she doesn’t seem to care about what the people think.”
The new ordinance is due to come fully in effect soon.
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