San Diego police want to access 500 streetlight cameras for surveillance, plus add license plate readers
San Diego would be the biggest U.S. city to use cameras and plate readers as part of a single network. But the community will get to weigh in first.
Almost three years ago, the city of San Diego cut off access to its broad network of “Smart Streetlights” — more than 3,000 devices perched atop light poles that could collect images and other data, some of which the Police Department used to investigate criminal cases.
The city removed that access, at least without a warrant, because of concerns from the public about surveillance and privacy issues.
Now the San Diego Police Department says it wants access restored to 500 of those devices and wants to add another crime-fighting tool to the network: automated license plate readers.
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The controversy surrounding the Smart Streetlights began in 2019 when it was revealed that the cameras had been in place for three years without public input.
Police started accessing the camera footage in 2018 for investigations. Direct access was cut off in 2020 as a result of public outcry.
Because the Smart Streetlight cameras have not been well-maintained over the years, the city would need to install new cameras. Adding the license plate reader technology would mark the first time San Diego would have the readers in fixed locations.
Facial recognition would not be part of the technology, according to the department.
The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Police chief says the department needs ‘civilianization,’ and labor leaders say large raises are necessary to fill the jobs.
This is the first big push for surveillance technology in San Diego since the city approved ordinances last year specifically setting rules to govern this kind of technology in light of privacy concerns.
Those ordinances lay out the lengthy process to win permission to use surveillance tech, and include holding community meetings to gather public input.
Meetings about the current proposal are planned throughout the city next week. One will be held in City Council District 2 at 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 7, at 3455 Kenyon St. in the Midway-Point Loma area.
The Police Department will accept public comments until 5 p.m. Friday, March 10, online at bit.ly/3ml9xFO.
The plan, if approved, would make San Diego the biggest city in the country to use both cameras and license plate readers as part of a single network, according to the Police Department. It would cost an estimated $4 million to roll out both the license plate recognition system and cameras. The department plans to pay for the program with funds from the city’s general fund and grants.
Police say the cameras and license plate readers are important tools for investigating felonies, finding missing at-risk people, responding to critical incidents and protecting city assets and resources.
At a time when the department faces staffing shortages, the technology’s ability to assist officers in investigating crimes acts as a “force multiplier,” Capt. Jeffrey Jordon said. He singled out license plate readers as “the biggest asset to law enforcement as far as technology that’s out there.”
“For us, particularly given our unique staffing needs, it is probably the most vital piece of technology that we can add right now to make a difference for our officers,” Jordon said.
According to a map provided by the department (online at bit.ly/3SHei8y), the technology would be placed all around the city, from Carmel Mountain Ranch to San Ysidro. Many of the locations are near freeways and along thoroughfares. In the Ocean Beach-Point Loma-Midway area, they include West Point Loma Boulevard at Nimitz and Sunset Cliffs boulevards; Sports Arena Boulevard just south of Interstate 8; and around Camino del Rio West and Hancock Street.
Jordon said the department came up with the locations by using crime data and input from investigators in units such as homicide, robbery, sex crimes and gangs.
He said the department is open to moving the technology if concerns arise among community members about certain locations.
The cameras would be installed at angles that collect video of public areas, with the goal to stay away from areas where the public expects privacy.
Any video police decide to use to investigate crimes would be downloaded from the software. Other footage captured by cameras would be overwritten after 15 days.
Department officials said the camera feed would not be monitored in real time. Rather, it would be accessed as an investigative tool after a crime has been committed.
Similarly, the department would use the license plate readers for “official law enforcement purposes,” such as when cars are stolen or wanted in connection with particular crimes, according to the proposed rules.
The technology would scan license plates as vehicles drive by and detect whether the number can be found in any law enforcement databases accessed by the system. If the system gets a hit, the software would alert the department’s dispatch center.
Police would be able to add license plate information to the system in order to be tipped off to wanted vehicles.
More employees — including detectives — would have access to the license plate recognition technology, compared with the cameras. The data would be retained for 30 days, then deleted.
But first, police have to get permission to use the technology. To do so, they must follow the procedure laid out in the city’s two surveillance tech ordinances approved in August.
Together they are dubbed Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology, or TRUST. One set of rules governs technology use, the other created the Privacy Advisory Board to offer advice in hopes of ensuring transparency, accountability and public debate.
San Diego police plan to meet with the Privacy Advisory Board on Wednesday, March 15.
Several community groups came together to create the TRUST San Diego Coalition, which helped craft the ordinances.
Coalition steering committee member Seth Hall commended the city this week for “coming to the table prior to purchasing and installing this technology.”
“However, it’s important that communities and neighborhoods understand why this technology is being pointed at them, who benefits from having this technology in their neighborhood and what the exact costs are going to be to the taxpayers,” Hall said.
“I wonder if there are things they would rather spend millions on in this city than mass surveillance technology,” he added.
The department commissioned an online survey, taken by 914 people, to collect their input about license plate readers and cameras in public.
According to the survey, 42 percent of respondents said they would feel more safe if San Diego police used automated license plate readers, and 13 percent said they would feel less safe. About 47 percent said they would feel safer if police use cameras in public spaces, and 10 percent said they would feel less safe.
The idea behind installing the $30 million Smart Streetlights program was to collect data on factors such as weather and pedestrian and vehicle movements to improve mobility on streets. But that vision never materialized.
Still, the cameras tucked into the streetlights kept rolling. Most people had no idea they were there.
In 2018, police learned they could access the cameras and started doing so to investigate cases, most of which were assaults, homicides, robberies and crashes resulting in serious or fatal injuries.
The public didn’t learn of the surveillance tech until 2019. The civil-rights outcry that followed led San Diego to shut down the camera access until it could write rules to govern the use of the cameras and all surveillance tech.
Under the ordinances, surveillance technology will be looked at annually and through a civil-rights lens. They call for a disclosure of data breaches and a look at whether gear is worth the money. The public will be able to debate surveillance technology proposals before the city moves forward with them.
For more information about the Police Department’s proposal and the full list of meetings planned for next week, visit sandiego.gov/police/data-transparency/technology.
— Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.