The ongoing debate at City Hall between supervisors, civil liberties advocates and crime watch organizers over how to legislate video surveillance can feel theoretical and academic.
Meanwhile, residents in the real world must deal with the fact that San Francisco has the highest rate of property crime among the nation’s largest cities.
Homeowners and businesses have adapted to this new normal by relying on private security cameras. After a break-in or robbery, they voluntarily give the video to the police.
A clear screen grab of a burglar’s face in the act can help lead to an arrest, search warrant, conviction and return of stolen property.
This practical and effective act of sharing video between private entities and the police works well. Yet the arrangement feels in jeopardy as the Board of Supervisors finalize the language of its “Stop Secret Surveillance” ordinance. The law would ban the use of city-operated facial recognition technology (a first in the nation) and require city departments to submit a policy for board approval before being able to purchase or use other types of surveillance devices.
The first draft appeared to severely curtail the use of traditional video by burying the San Francisco Police Department in a bureaucratic approval process. It was also unclear whether police would be allowed to use video footage from private parties not subject to the law’s policies.
We appreciated Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s response to our letter writing campaign.
“I intend to amend this ordinance in order to make it even easier for law enforcement agencies to comply with its terms,” he told us.
But amending legislation is a messy process where words are horse-traded. And one of the amendments is still missing a vital word.
We’re glad language was added that allows the police department to receive video footage from private entities. But it doesn’t explicitly say police can use the video.
While some would argue the intent of receiving is usage, we’d feel better with crystal-clear words. It’s the only way to stop future supervisors from interpreting a big loophole in the law.
We’re also worried about what looks like a big caveat at the end of the amendment. It says the police can receive private video as long as no other part of the law is violated. But the law contains many requirements meant for city departments that would be onerous for private citizens and businesses.
Perhaps more troubling is language that says the police department must get full Board of Supervisors approval before working with a private entity that regularly provides video. This could jeopardize longstanding relationships with private businesses and merchant associations from Union Square to West Portal that work closely with police.
Overall, the legislation is well meaning. If the city owns and operates video cameras, there should be a policy that holds City Hall accountable. Concerns about Big Brother and Big Tech violating our privacy are real. A recent audit of the FBI’s facial recognition technology found a 14 percent failure rate.
But instead of an outright ban on City Hall using facial recognition cameras, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to issue a moratorium until the technology improves? This would give companies an incentive to fix the problems and create a tool for public safety that might be helpful when used responsibly.
As for traditional video, it’s never been more popular for fighting crime. Ironically, there’s a lot of support at City Hall for private security video.
Supervisor Gordon Mar is considering a program to give residents a rebate on home security cameras. He represents the Sunset district, which has been hit hard by burglaries.
Stop Crime SF recently won $25,000 from City Hall to install video security cameras on Westside homes and businesses.
Supervisor Norman Yee ran a contest to spend a portion of the city’s budget improving District 7. Residents submitted many proposals and Stop Crime SF’s video project won the most votes.
We aren’t popping any Champagne corks just yet. We’re worried the video surveillance legislation working its way through the Board of Supervisors could undermine the very cameras City Hall awarded us.
If you want the “Stop Secret Surveillance” law to clearly say the police should be able to both receive and use private video to solve crimes in the real world, please send an email to Board.of.Supervisors@sfgov.org or make your voice heard during public comment at City Hall on Monday, May 6 at 10am in room 263.