Open Letter to San Francisco Board of Supervisors
March 29, 2019
Stop Crime SF represents more than 500 San Francisco residents working together to reduce and prevent crime in our neighborhoods while holding public officials and the criminal justice system accountable. We run a Court Watch program to ensure our elected judges take crime seriously. We also facilitate the installation of video security cameras in business and residential areas with private donations and city grants such as Supervisor Norman Yee’s Participatory Budgeting program.
These camera installations in neighborhoods like Golden Gate Heights, Bayview and the West Portal business district are popular with residents and merchants. San Francisco police officers and assistant district attorneys tell us the cameras provide valuable video evidence for arresting and convicting burglars. Video is an important tool to tackle property crime in San Francisco, which has the highest rate of property crime of the nation’s most populated cities.
We are concerned about the “Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance” currently being considered by the Board of Supervisors. It will significantly limit the ability of law enforcement to fight crime with video cameras. Please see our suggested amendments to this ordinance at the end of this letter.
The proposed ordinance would:
1. Prohibit city departments from using security technology services or equipment unless the Board of Supervisors first approves a Surveillance Technology policy for the services and equipment.
2. Outright ban the use of facial recognition technology.
3. Create too much legislative burden for the use of traditional security video.
We understand the good intentions of the legislation. No one can pretend that facial recognition technology is perfect, especially when it has trouble properly identifying people of color. The FBI’s facial recognition technology had a 14 percent failure rate as of 2016, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office report. While that is undoubtedly better than visual identification by victims or bystanders, it cannot be the sole factor in arrests. But combined with good police work and when deployed in conjunction with well-crafted public policy, it can serve as a useful tool. A ban precludes any thoughtful regulation: It’s just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
An outright ban also precludes the possibility of significant technological improvements, just as has occurred in DNA identification in recent years. The software has already advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years, and much better accuracy may be around the corner. Refinements that address today’s shortcomings could make facial recognition a valuable security tool.
Our greatest concern with the proposed legislation is how it will affect the use of traditional security video. The expense and burden of the ordinance’s required audits and reports — not to mention approval from the full Board of Supervisors — would make it much more difficult to set up or continue operation of city-operated security cameras in timely fashion in San Francisco.
What about security cameras on private homes and businesses? The proposed law doesn’t restrict a private citizen from installing a camera. But the ordinance would seemingly require the city to develop a use policy and receive Board of Supervisors approval before “entering into agreement with a non-city entity to acquire, share, or otherwise use surveillance technology.”
This broad language could restrict the city from using information provided by any private citizen or local business that doesn’t strictly adhere to the city’s yet-to-be-developed policies. When a crime is committed, there should be no such restrictions on SFPD’s access to information provided by the public which might help in an arrest of a violent or repeat offender.
Valuable video footage, such as that which captured the 2017 murder of photographer Ed French on Twin Peaks, could serve justice. Such footage might not exist in future cases if the ordinance curtails the use of city-operated cameras.
The law could also make it more difficult for San Francisco to partner with other law enforcement agencies. The politically charged Board of Supervisors would have to approve cooperation. The law has an exception that allows the city to use surveillance technology in emergencies for seven days. But is that enough time to thwart a terrorist attack?
After the Boston marathon bombing, more than 4,000 hours of police time were spent investigating terrorists. Surveillance video helps monitor areas without adequate police coverage. Video is also unbiased and provides total recall of events. We can save time, money and most importantly lives by effective use of surveillance technology as a force-multiplier.
San Francisco has its own marathon, and other high-profile events like the Pride and Chinese New Year parades that attract hundreds of thousands of people. Will these events become known as easy targets? As a city that stands for diversity, San Francisco is particularly vulnerable to threats from anti-LGBTQ, white supremacist or other terrorists. We should not let our guard down.
Beyond cameras, the ordinance broadly applies to other essential public safety tools, including license-plate readers, gunshot-detection hardware, DNA-capture technology and radio-frequency-ID scanners. It would even affect the body cameras worn by police officers.
As nearby cities use the technology we seek to ban and limit, criminals will commute to San Francisco as the place where they can conduct their criminal activities unnoticed. They already flock to San Francisco to break into cars because they think our judges, juries and prosecutors don’t take property crime as seriously as other cities.
Nothing in current law now prevents the Board of Supervisors and the agencies from creating policies governing the acquisition or use of security cameras and related technology. To put the cart before the horse jeopardizes public safety for no valid reason. The Board should proceed to adopt reasonable policies forthwith, but without requiring a halt to ongoing necessary operations while such policies are considered.
The Board of Supervisors should continue this hearing until it has first completed a study on this issue and received input from the District Attorney, police department and other agencies, all of which have expertise on such technologies. Then the Police Commission, or other relevant body with expertise, should hold a hearing to allow the public to hear recommendations and comment on this issue.
We also submit below suggested amendments to this ordinance.
Stop Crime SF Executive Board
Exclude the District Attorney, Sheriff and Police Departments (while performing investigative, prosecutorial or security functions, including terrorist and hate-crime threats) from the requirements of this ordinance. The proposed ordinance would require the SFPD to cease use of vehicular or body-mounted cameras during operations within 120 days unless and until both the department and the Board of Supervisors comply with certain requirements; this could result in an increase in unsolved crimes, police misconduct, or misidentification of innocent members of the public. Similarly, the Sheriff’s Department could not monitor operations in the prisons, or the DA use video/photo evidence to prosecute domestic violence or other violent crime cases. Failure to permit monitoring in the prisons could result in prisoner abuse or prisoner-on-prisoner violence, while limitations on access by the DA could result in miscarriages of justice and increase the crime rate. San Francisco juries increasingly seldom convict in property crimes without photographic evidence.
Exclude SFO from certain requirements of this ordinance. It is intuitively obvious that airports are particularly vulnerable to certain types of terrorist activity.
Change the effective date of the Ordinance to the beginning of the next fiscal year, or 180 days after enactment, whichever comes later. Most departments do not have the expertise or resources to fulfil the detailed and highly technical requirements of this proposed legislation without additional time.
Require that additional funds be explicitly allocated to each affected department in the applicable fiscal year, including the Controllers’ office, to comply with the requirements of this ordinance. Reducing existing services in order to comply with the proposed ordinance’s requirements is unacceptable.
Revise compliance dates in Sec. 19.B.5 (a) to 180 days and in Sec. 19.B.5 (b) to 150 days, for reasons stated above.
Require any cost benefit analysis to include an estimate of economic and social costs to the public as well as city government of reduced arrests and convictions that might result from banned or restricted use of technology.
Require any cost benefit analysis to examine the cost of alternatives to surveillance technology.
Delete requirements for public release of identification of certain locations for surveillance technology. This information should be classified for selected locations to protect against criminal activity or terrorist activities. There is no reason to give potential lawbreakers a roadmap to areas where they can safely carry out criminal activities.
Eliminate any ban on facial recognition technology or include at minimum a two-year sunset clause in any such ban. This technology is improving at a rapid rate, so error rates will inevitably improve. Existing problems likely will diminish or disappear with technological advances, so further legislative action should be required if justified when examining future outcomes.
Clarify the definition of “any individual or group” included in the definition of “Surveillance Technology” to exclude criminals, suspects and prisoners. Obviously, the legitimate aim of surveillance is to identify and prevent these groups from the commission of crimes.
Consider the impacts on the public of reduced surveillance at large crowd events such as the Pride Parade and the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration. These events might become targets for hate-group terrorists if it became known that surveillance technology use was reduced at such occasions.
Allow the public to provide surveillance evidence to City agencies for use in crime investigations.
Exempt use of facial recognition technology to access computer, smart phone and other instruments used by City employees. Rather than use passwords, many devices employ facial recognition to allow users access to their phones, etc.