San Diego Public Safety Committee votes to support Police Department's smart streetlight proposal
The San Diego Public Safety Committee voted July 19 to support the Police Department’s smart streetlight proposal, bringing the divisive technology one step closer to installation.
The vote came about a month after the newly formed Privacy Advisory Board voted to recommend to city officials that they not allow the streetlight program to move forward. The City Council will decide in coming weeks whether to side with the board or the Public Safety Committee.
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The Police Department in March first proposed using 500 streetlights equipped with cameras and automated license plate readers as crime-fighting tools. If the council approves the plan, San Diego would become the largest city in the country to use cameras and plate readers as part of a single network, police officials have said.
The cameras would be spread across the city, with two locations proposed inside La Jolla, both near the La Jolla Parkway/Torrey Pines Road intersection known as “The Throat.” Another is planned for La Jolla Village Drive near Westfield UTC mall.
The highest concentrations would be in communities such as Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, Otay Mesa, Hillcrest, North Park and downtown San Diego.
Three Public Safety Committee members, council members Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo and Jennifer Campbell, voted in favor of the proposal. Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe voted against it.
“I think this is what’s needed to protect public safety, protect victims and protect people who are innocent and wrongly accused,” said von Wilpert, who chairs the committee.
Montgomery Steppe said that while she’s not against the use of technology to help police officers do their jobs, she feels strongly that these tools require another layer of accountability.
“This process was wasn’t just intended to be a checklist, it was intended to be thorough,” she said. “It was intended to promote collaboration with community members.”
Speakers who opposed the technology said during the committee meeting that they worried the technology would invade people’s privacy and lead to overpolicing in communities of color. Many said they don’t trust the police to be good stewards of such powerful tools.
“How will this impact my community? How will this impact folks who have various immigration statuses in my community? How will this impact and criminalize other members of our community?” said Homayra Yusufi, interim executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans. “And what we have seen with the streetlights and [license plate readers] is that there is not enough information for us to feel that these technologies will be used in a way that will not harm us.”
Yusufi’s organization is one of many that came together to form TRUST SD, a coalition of community groups that helped craft the city’s new surveillance ordinance. The law, passed in September, requires technologies like smart streetlights be vetted before they’re put to use.
Under the new law, city departments are required to disclose their surveillance technologies and compile reports outlining how those tools are used and their impact on communities, including conducting meetings to gather community input about all of the more than 300 surveillance tools that need to be evaluated. That information then makes its way to the Privacy Advisory Board — a volunteer panel tasked with vetting the city’s technologies — and subsequently to the City Council.
The council voted unanimously July 18 to extend the September deadline for completing that work by three years.
The city had given itself a year to get through the work, but now it will have three more. Some doubt even that will be enough time.
Police and some city officials praise smart streetlights for their positive impact on police work.
“Bringing back the use of smart streetlights will be a game changer for the San Diego Police Department,” Chief David Nisleit said in a statement. “Investigators will be able to narrow in on suspects more quickly and with greater precision.”
In 2016, City Council members signed off on a $30 million project that pledged to use 3,000 energy-saving smart streetlights to assess traffic and parking patterns throughout the city. What the public wouldn’t know for years was that the technology came with cameras that could be accessed by police.
The resulting outcry — based on concerns about privacy and equity — led San Diego to shut down the network and fueled the creation of the surveillance ordinance and the Privacy Advisory Board.
Before losing access to the technology, police had used footage from the smart streetlights to investigate hundreds of cases, including 56 homicides or attempted homicides, 55 robberies or burglaries and 55 assaults involving a weapon.
Police officials also accessed streetlights 35 times to gather evidence against demonstrators suspected of committing crimes during protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. The department’s direct access to the cameras’ video and other data was cut off that year.
Though many acknowledge the technology’s potential as a crime-fighting tool, groups like the Privacy Advisory Board and others have found the Police Department’s proposal lacking.
When the board voted against the initiative last month, members said they felt the department hadn’t provided enough information about various aspects of the plan, including the purpose or goals of the streetlight program, how data would be collected and safeguarded, who would have access to the information gathered, how those people would be trained and how the effectiveness of the technology would be assessed.
They also took issue with the fact that although department officials said they planned to install cameras made by Ubicquia, a telecommunications company, no information had been provided about the vendor for the accompanying automated license plate readers.
On July 19, police officials said they would pursue a license plate reader contract with Flock Safety, which according to its website has partnered with more than 2,000 law enforcement departments.
— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report. ◆