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San Diego slows down those streetlight cameras

Police worry about its work with other agencies

Under the ordinance, any new technology will be analyzed before being implemented.
Under the ordinance, any new technology will be analyzed before being implemented.

The city council on Monday voted 5-4 to amend an ordinance that would put "guardrails" on police use of surveillance technology.

After two years of work on the ordinance, which had broad support among the public, community leaders, and city employees, a last-minute request for changes by the San Diego Police Department has sent it back.

"It's good enough to move forward," said council president pro tem Monica Montgomery-Steppe, who spearheaded the ordinance. "I do believe that justice delayed here is justice denied."

The first of two readings will be held by July 19.

The change all began in late 2020, when one such stealth technology came to light. Over 3,000 smart streetlights installed by the city as a sustainability upgrade were found to have cameras.

After a public furor, the cameras were turned off but the buzz about it was on. To prevent more dark surprises, the city got to work on an ordinance to regulate the acquisition, use, and funding of surveillance technology, such as automated license plate readers and facial recognition.

Under the ordinance, any new technology will be analyzed before being implemented.

After a public furor, the cameras were turned off.

According to a city report, most departments have less than 10 new surveillance technologies, and the police department accounted for more than half. The cost per technology is estimated at $110,000-150,000.

One of the main reasons the police department has given for opposing the ordinance are its impacts on federal task forces that officers may be working with.

David Nisleit, chief of police, said he's not opposed to oversight. The problem is nondisclosure agreements, which individual officers sign, he says. They govern everything and they would become null and void.

"We have 16 nondisclosure agreements that I would have to disclose." Doing so would be a risk to himself and the task force officers that sign up. He would have no choice but to remove his officers from the federal task forces.

It could compromise large investigations that might involve the drug trade, mass shootings, and human trafficking. "I rely heavily on my federal partners to investigate these crimes."

Brian Hofer, executive director of Oakland-based Secure Justice, disputes the claims, saying in an email that "99 percent of what the chief said today regarding federal task forces is untrue and easily proven to be false."

Hofer served an advisory role to the Trust SD Coalition, and councilmember Montgomery Steppe. As chair of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, he has co-authored five similar frameworks in California.

San Diego's ordinance is based on lessons learned in other jurisdictions, mostly Oakland, he added.

"It is alarming that the council just found out about all these NDAs and decided to do nothing about them," he said. "But disclosure of an NDA won't increase civil liberties protections by itself, so relieving them of the obligation to disclose an NDA isn’t going to derail the ordinance from working."

Many other jurisdictions with surveillance ordinances don’t require NDA disclosure, either, he said.

Over 80 public speakers commented, mostly in support of the ordinance and against making any changes, while a few called for it to be revamped.

They cited fears that the police will continue using the technology without accountability, and that any amendment will open the floodgates to increased surveillance, data tracking and invasion of privacy.

Matthew Greco, from the office of the district attorney, said it targets the elimination of intelligent street lights and cameras, which could harm crime victims. In one instance, he said, a man acting in self defense would have been charged with a major crime had the street cameras not been in use.

Recently the city council established a Privacy Advisory Board composed of volunteer citizens, another effort led by Montgomery-Steppe. Oakland is the only other city to have such a board.

The city's amendments to the surveillance ordinance, which were proposed by Councilmember Raul Campillo, will cap attorney fees at $15,000 and preserve investigations long underway by exempting city personnel assigned to federal task forces.

Hofer says the proposed task force amendment is narrow enough in application that "it should not derail the ordinance" from its goal.

"When coupled with the newly enacted Privacy Advisory Board, it will ensure that regular folks have a voice in how tech is used in their city."

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Under the ordinance, any new technology will be analyzed before being implemented.
Under the ordinance, any new technology will be analyzed before being implemented.

The city council on Monday voted 5-4 to amend an ordinance that would put "guardrails" on police use of surveillance technology.

After two years of work on the ordinance, which had broad support among the public, community leaders, and city employees, a last-minute request for changes by the San Diego Police Department has sent it back.

"It's good enough to move forward," said council president pro tem Monica Montgomery-Steppe, who spearheaded the ordinance. "I do believe that justice delayed here is justice denied."

The first of two readings will be held by July 19.

The change all began in late 2020, when one such stealth technology came to light. Over 3,000 smart streetlights installed by the city as a sustainability upgrade were found to have cameras.

After a public furor, the cameras were turned off but the buzz about it was on. To prevent more dark surprises, the city got to work on an ordinance to regulate the acquisition, use, and funding of surveillance technology, such as automated license plate readers and facial recognition.

Under the ordinance, any new technology will be analyzed before being implemented.

After a public furor, the cameras were turned off.

According to a city report, most departments have less than 10 new surveillance technologies, and the police department accounted for more than half. The cost per technology is estimated at $110,000-150,000.

One of the main reasons the police department has given for opposing the ordinance are its impacts on federal task forces that officers may be working with.

David Nisleit, chief of police, said he's not opposed to oversight. The problem is nondisclosure agreements, which individual officers sign, he says. They govern everything and they would become null and void.

"We have 16 nondisclosure agreements that I would have to disclose." Doing so would be a risk to himself and the task force officers that sign up. He would have no choice but to remove his officers from the federal task forces.

It could compromise large investigations that might involve the drug trade, mass shootings, and human trafficking. "I rely heavily on my federal partners to investigate these crimes."

Brian Hofer, executive director of Oakland-based Secure Justice, disputes the claims, saying in an email that "99 percent of what the chief said today regarding federal task forces is untrue and easily proven to be false."

Hofer served an advisory role to the Trust SD Coalition, and councilmember Montgomery Steppe. As chair of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, he has co-authored five similar frameworks in California.

San Diego's ordinance is based on lessons learned in other jurisdictions, mostly Oakland, he added.

"It is alarming that the council just found out about all these NDAs and decided to do nothing about them," he said. "But disclosure of an NDA won't increase civil liberties protections by itself, so relieving them of the obligation to disclose an NDA isn’t going to derail the ordinance from working."

Many other jurisdictions with surveillance ordinances don’t require NDA disclosure, either, he said.

Over 80 public speakers commented, mostly in support of the ordinance and against making any changes, while a few called for it to be revamped.

They cited fears that the police will continue using the technology without accountability, and that any amendment will open the floodgates to increased surveillance, data tracking and invasion of privacy.

Matthew Greco, from the office of the district attorney, said it targets the elimination of intelligent street lights and cameras, which could harm crime victims. In one instance, he said, a man acting in self defense would have been charged with a major crime had the street cameras not been in use.

Recently the city council established a Privacy Advisory Board composed of volunteer citizens, another effort led by Montgomery-Steppe. Oakland is the only other city to have such a board.

The city's amendments to the surveillance ordinance, which were proposed by Councilmember Raul Campillo, will cap attorney fees at $15,000 and preserve investigations long underway by exempting city personnel assigned to federal task forces.

Hofer says the proposed task force amendment is narrow enough in application that "it should not derail the ordinance" from its goal.

"When coupled with the newly enacted Privacy Advisory Board, it will ensure that regular folks have a voice in how tech is used in their city."

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