Despite Privacy Concerns, San Francisco Supervisors Expand Police Access to Live Camera Feeds

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An upward-angled photo of a black almost round surveillance camera attached to the side of a darkly painted building. The camera points directly at the camera that took the picture. To the right appear to be two more surveillance cameras, white bases with rounded domes attached to the same building.
A surveillance camera on Howard Street in San Francisco. (Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

San Francisco supervisors voted Tuesday for a trial run allowing police to monitor, in real time, private surveillance cameras in certain circumstances, despite strong objections from civil liberties groups alarmed by the potential impact on privacy.

Mayor London Breed requested the ability to monitor in real time and was supported by merchants and residents who say police officers need more tools to combat drug dealing and retail theft they say have marred the city’s quality of life. It is temporary and will sunset in 15 months.

The vote was 7-4, with some supervisors astonished that the governing board of politically liberal San Francisco would consider granting more powers to law enforcement in a city that celebrates its activism. Others pushed back, saying they were tired of sophisticated criminal networks taking advantage of San Francisco’s lax attitude toward retail theft and other property crimes.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, a privacy advocate who successfully passed legislation in 2019 to ban the use of facial recognition software by San Francisco police and other city departments, voted for the expansion. He said his team worked hard with the mayor and other members of the board to negotiate safeguards, including strict reporting requirements on when live monitoring was used and whether it improved safety.

“I realized that is anathema to some,” said Peskin. “I am willing to give it a try.”


Police use of private surveillance equipment has ramped up across the country as a way to deter and investigate crime. Most use is voluntary, as it is in San Francisco, although a new ordinance in Houston, Texas, mandates certain businesses — bars, nightclubs and convenience stores — to record outside their premises at all times and share footage with police when requested.

In San Francisco, the new policy comes after years of a tumultuous pandemic in which viral footage of rampant shoplifting and brutal attacks on Asian Americans fueled a sense of unease and lawlessness.

Under the new rules, police can monitor live for up to 24 hours, but only in emergencies where lives are at stake or in criminal investigations with a captain’s written approval. They can also monitor high-profile events to decide where to deploy officers. Permission must be received from the individual, business or community district for access to their cameras. Only outdoor areas can be monitored.

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The trial period will last 15 months, giving supervisors about a year’s worth of data to review before they decide whether to extend the pilot program, tweak it or end it, Peskin said.

The ACLU of Northern California was among more than two dozen groups that called on supervisors to prohibit live surveillance except in emergencies, saying it would disproportionately affect African Americans and other vulnerable communities.

The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued San Francisco on behalf of protestors in 2020, claiming San Francisco police illegally monitored live feeds of protestors who were marching in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Privacy advocates argued that police violated a local ordinance requiring the department to gain permission from the Board of Supervisors to monitor live feeds when they accessed a camera network operated by the Union Square Business Improvement District.

They also said police surveillance of public demonstrations can discourage people from exercising their rights to free speech and assembly.

In February, a judge decided in favor of San Francisco. In his ruling, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer said the Union Square group gave police access to the cameras for the 2019 Pride Parade, before the ordinance was implemented, and therefore the police were allowed to continue accessing the network.

The two advocacy groups announced last month that they will appeal the decision.

Board President Shamann Walton, who is Black and voted against the legislation, said police already have the tools to request video footage from private citizens and make arrests.

“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,” he said.

Mayor Breed thanked the board, saying live surveillance would allow the police “to respond to the challenges presented by organized criminal activity, homicides, gun violence,” and even officer misconduct.

In December, the mayor called for a crackdown on illegal vending and drug dealing in the Tenderloin, one of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city with among the highest overdose rates. At the time, she announced she would seek legislation allowing law enforcement real-time access to surveillance video.

Despite her harsh words — Breed said it was time to be “less tolerant of all the bull— that has destroyed our city” — the neighborhood remains troubled.

In June, San Francisco’s progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin was ousted from the district attorney’s office in a rare recall and replaced by Brooke Jenkins, who supports the trial program.

To become law, the proposal needs a second vote, which is usually perfunctory and given the following week. Two members of the city’s five-member police commission, a citizen-led oversight body, have requested that the board hold off on the final vote until they have an opportunity to review the legislation.