Some residents called it mass surveillance technology that erodes personal privacy. Others said it will mark San Diego’s descent into Communist China. And still others said it didn’t go far enough.
All of last week, San Diego police officials held public meetings in each of the city’s nine city council districts to allow residents to weigh in on the proposed surveillance technology.
The police department wants to do two things: return to its controversial “smart street light” program that attaches 500 video cameras to light poles throughout the city and adds technology to those cameras so the agency can collect drivers’ location data.
San Diego Police Capt. Jeff Jordon, who chaired each of the nine public meetings, highlighted horrific anecdotes of murder and kidnapping, saying those crimes and more are being solved thanks to smart street lights and license plate reader technology. But he is sensitive to community concerns, he said, stressing that the department wants to roll this out responsibly.
“Any technology you embrace is only as good as the rules you build around it,” Jordon said. “The first has to be to use it in an ethical and legal way and make sure we’re providing protection to people and not using it in an unethical way.”
Many members of the public who attended the meeting were skeptical, questioning who would have access to the information, under what circumstances, and what the police department would do to police itself.
“There are legions of examples of police departments across the country, including California, violating every single one of these rules,” said Chris McCann, a software architect with experience in intelligence gathering and surveillance technology. “Why should anyone take any guarantee made here today?”
If approved, 500 new street light cameras will include automated license plate reader technology. They capture any number plate that comes into view and extract the time, date, location and sometimes a partial image of the vehicle. They automatically store the plate number in a searchable database and compare it to a list of vehicles the police are looking for.
State law says the information cannot be shared with any federal or out-of-state law enforcement agencies. Who has access to that information has been a point of contention, especially as state lawmakers across the country debate laws that would criminalize pregnant women who seek abortions or parents who receive gender-affirming care for their children.
An innewsource investigation last year found that most San Diego County police offices spend thousands of dollars each year collecting driver location data using this technology, and revealed that half were illegally sharing that data with foreign agencies. All five departments identified in the investigation, the site has since decided to stop sharing data outside of California.
License plate readers are a powerful tool that can help law enforcement identify people who commit crimes. And police officials are often quick to highlight all the times it has helped investigators with heinous crimes.
But the vast majority of information collected usually has nothing to do with solving crime or protecting the public. In Escondido, for example, cameras have scanned more than 8 million license plates and returned 82,000 results – a hit rate of 0.9%.
And when pieced together, all the data it collects can give the government unlimited insight into drivers’ daily routines in San Diego County — from where they go to who they spend their time with.
Activists say it’s an arbitrary data collection effort and point to nationwide examples of law-abiding citizens being victimized thanks to police misconduct or misunderstandings of the technology.
However, this technology is nothing new to San Diego. The police department already used streetlight cameras and license plate readers — the only difference now is that the City Council passed a law last year requiring officials to set a clear policy and hold public meetings in each of the city’s nine districts before deploying anything that could be considered. monitoring.
And this is where Jordon came into the picture. His job was to explain the proposal at those public meetings, gather feedback and present it to the new Privacy Advisory Committee and ultimately the City Council to decide if it’s right for San Diegans.
innewsource reporters attended two of the nine meetings last week and witnessed overwhelming opposition, with a side of anti-communist rhetoric and a dash of conspiracy theories.
Residents also felt the police department moved too quickly to roll this out, criticizing officials for holding the meetings in the middle of the day, when most people are at work.
Ramla Sahid, an organizer with Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, attended a meeting in City Heights. She said it felt like a slap in the face.
“The vast majority of young people who are concerned about this, people of color who are affected by this, the imams, whose mosques you put cameras right in frontcan’t I access this,” she said, “because who the hell is free at 1 p.m. in the afternoon, except for our lovely elders?”
Jordon said the department tried to spread the meetings out to different times and locations to make it easy for people to attend, but it would be impossible to please everyone. Especially with the plan to add surveillance technology.
“I know there are many of you in this room who will never go along with this proposal,” Jordon said. “You’re afraid of privacy, and I understand that. I’m not here to convince everyone that this is for them.”
Jordon emphasized that access to this information will only be given to officers investigating violent crime. San Diego police will only keep the data for 30 days, he added, and any videos or photos not accessed after 15 days will be overwritten — a policy far stricter than other agencies in the county.
He also maintained that the department has no intention of violating privacy. The equipment includes digital masking, he said, which will block any view where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as schools or homes.
Jordan also assured residents that his department will follow state laws that prohibit sharing that location data with federal and foreign agencies.
“Apparently some law enforcement agencies didn’t read that law either, which is why license plate data from some communities in California ended up in my home state of New Jersey,” Jordon said. “We won’t fail either.”
And while trying to allay fears and debunk the slippery slope of concerns expressed by many, Jordon repeatedly insisted that any change to that proposal would trigger the public hearing again. This means that even if the police were to add facial recognition, gunshot recognition or other forms of surveillance, the community would know about it in advance.
But it didn’t help for some.
Proposed locations of street lights and automatic license plate readers.
click here to view an interactive map.
“One of the concerns is that politics is changing,” said one man who attended the meeting in La Jolla. “The council people now may be really good people, but regulations change, even at the U.S. Supreme Court level, things change.”
At least two participants in La Jolla felt the surveillance would not go far enough. One asked why so few were dedicated to the predominantly white, affluent community.
Jordon said officials were looking at where the technology would have the biggest immediate impact, particularly with communities suffering from gun violence.
“There is violence up here, but not the kind of gun violence that we see in other communities,” Jordon said.
At the end of the day, it’s about leveraging technology to help a police department facing a shortage of 200 officers and 100 detectives, Jordon said. San Diego is fully funded to fill these positions, but they can’t find the applicants.
“Any information that we can (get) to help them investigate and contact people responsible for crime, at least with some basic information, to us is very valuable,” he added.