Drones, cameras, trackers: San Diego police disclose list of tech tools used for surveillance, investigations

An example of surveillance technology the San Diego Police Department wants to use on 500 streetlights around the city.
(Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The list highlights more than 70 types of technology and how each is used, what it collects, and who gets to use it and under what circumstances.


Months after San Diego police proposed using hundreds of “Smart Streetlights” around the city — and began the process to obtain public input and city approval — the department has released a long list of other surveillance technologies already in use.

The more than 70 listed items, including drones, car trackers and body-worn cameras, also need to be formally approved.

The Police Department posted the list to comply with a new San Diego ordinance that requires all city departments to reveal the types of surveillance technology they possess. The idea is to create better transparency and protect civil liberties.

Included on the list are 500 Smart Streetlights — which contain cameras that collect data — and automated license plate readers that the department wants to use across the city. Many of the locations are near freeways and along main 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.

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.

March 2, 2023

Police had access to a network of more than 3,000 Smart Streetlights a few years ago, but the city cut that access in 2020 after the public found out and voiced concerns about surveillance and privacy issues.

Now the Police Department says it wants access restored to 500 of those devices and add the license plate readers.
Because the Smart Streetlight cameras have not been well-maintained over the years, the city would need to install new cameras.

The proposal would cost about $4 million for the cameras and automated license plate readers, according to SDPD. The department plans to pay for the program with funds from the city’s general fund and grants.

The Smart Streetlights controversy prompted San Diego to pass an ordinance last year requiring police to disclose what surveillance technology they have and any they are trying to obtain.

“We want to make sure that we’re employing tools that we’ve used — would like to think somewhat uncontroversially — for years,” said police Lt. Charles Lara, who is overseeing the department’s tech approval process.

Many of the technologies on the list have been in use for decades and “are at the heart of policing in a modern world,” Lara said.

Other listed items include:

  • Several types of drones with video capabilities
  • Surveillance cameras inside and around City Hall
  • Fingerprint scanners
  • GPS trackers for bicycles
  • Body-worn cameras

    Others include a specialized phone that police throw to a suspect during crisis negotiations, and a genetic analyzer that detects DNA profiles extracted from evidence.
    The department listed several databases that officers use to help identify and track data, 911 calls and evidence. The state’s arson and sex offender registries are listed as well.

    The City Council last year unanimously passed a pair of ordinances that together are dubbed Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology, or TRUST.

    One ordinance governs technology used by the city, requiring it to be reviewed every year through a civil-rights lens. The other created the Privacy Advisory Board to offer advice to the council.

    In addition to disclosing what surveillance items police have or want to buy, the department has to present and explain each item at public meetings in each of the nine City Council districts.

    Meetings about the Smart Streetlights proposal were held in March.

    The Privacy Advisory Board is supposed to review all items within a year of the surveillance ordinance going into effect, which means September. The public meetings must happen before the board can review the technology.

    Any technology that hadn’t moved through the steps was supposed to be put on pause until it could be reviewed. With the deadline three months away, officials said this past week that a proposed amendment is in the works that would extend the deadline by a year in an effort to avoid a citywide shutdown of critical tools.

    The proposal could be reviewed by the Public Safety Committee as early as next month, city officials said.

    The Smart Streetlights plan went to the Privacy Advisory Board last week, and public comments largely were against it.

    The same was true for many of the earlier public meetings. Video from one meeting drew nearly 400 comments, with more than 80 percent opposed.

    At the privacy board meeting, San Diego resident Ruben Cabrera said he was worried that police may abuse technology like license plate readers, fearing they would be used to unfairly target communities of color.

    “I’m a grown man ... but if I’m at a stoplight right now and there’s law enforcement right behind me, my stomach is turning wondering if I’m going to be made an example today,” Cabrera said.

    San Diego resident Muslah Abdul-Hafeez said the community needs to invest in youth, especially in Black and Brown communities.

    “But the way these cameras are set up, they saturate the communities of color … and are designed to target people of color,” Abdul-Hafeez said.

    Of the 500 proposed locations in the Police Department’s plan, council District 8, which is more than 70 percent Latino, would have 111 Smart Streetlights and automated license plate readers, or about eight per 10,000 people.

    By comparison, District 1, which includes La Jolla and Pacific Beach, would have 21, or 1.22 per 10,000 people.

    Police say locations were selected based on crime data — particularly violent crimes and incidents in which a gun was used — and information provided by the department’s homicide, robbery and sex crime units.

    Many Zoom callers raised privacy concerns, including one who said “it paves the way for totalitarianism. And I don’t consent to any of it.”

    Catharine Douglass, who chairs the La Jolla Town Council Public Safety Committee, was one of a handful of people at the privacy board meeting who were in favor of the cameras. Douglass said they would not be used for immigration purposes and would not record private property. She said her committee supports the program because it would help solve violent crimes.

    “I want these crimes solved quickly and fairly, and so do the victims and their families,” Douglass said.

    “Anyone adverse to Smart Streetlights and license plate readers is either aiding and abetting criminal activity or has failed to do their research to truly understand how, when, where and why this technology is used,” she added.

    Police say they are developing policies and procedures meant to prevent “false positives” and misuse of the technology and are outlining disciplinary actions for anyone who violates those policies. The department also would limit who can access the technology and audit those who do have access, according to a city memorandum dated May 25.

    The Police Department said its proposal does not include audio detection or recording; counting vehicles or pedestrians impacting traffic; documenting near collisions; facial recognition or monitoring “unusual behaviors.” If that were to change, the department would have to make a formal request and go back to the Privacy Advisory Board for review.

    Video data recorded by the cameras would be destroyed every 15 days, unless it gets pulled to use in an investigation, police said.

    The privacy board expects to have a recommendation for the City Council on streetlights and automated license plate recognition technology in July.

    Seth Hall, a member of a watchdog coalition monitoring police activity, helped craft the surveillance ordinance. He said the idea is to “truly inform and engage with each community” so people know what technology police have and how it might affect their lives.

    He said the coalition “believes that the surveillance technologies are incredibly personal. … They collect information about each and every person’s life who is caught up with them.”

    “What the TRUST Coalition and the City Council want for San Diegans is a genuine opportunity to have a seat at the table,” Hall said.

    Hall noted than San Diego police have drones made by DJI, a Chinese manufacturer said to be the world’s largest maker of automated aerial vehicles. Several policing agencies across the country use DJI drones. Concerns about spying sparked a push to ban the use of Chinese-made drones, as Florida did in 2021. Currently a bipartisan Senate bill seeks to ban the purchase of drones made in countries identified as national security threats, including China.

    Hall said he is worried about items not on the Police Department’s list, such as Shot Spotter technology to detect gunfire, which drew controversy when it was installed, particularly in communities of color. He said the hardware remains installed in San Diego, though police said they have not used it in years.

    — San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Lyndsay Winkley and Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.


    9:40 a.m. June 11, 2023: This article was updated with additional information.


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