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San Diego police want to add surveillance tech: 500 streetlight cameras plus license plate readers

Nearly three years ago, the City of San Diego shut down access to its wide network of Smart Streetlights — more than 3,000 devices atop light poles that could collect images and other data, some of which was used by law enforcement to solve criminal cases.

The city removed that entry, at least without a warrant, due to public concerns about surveillance and privacy issues.

On Wednesday, the San Diego Police Department said access to 500 of those devices needs to be restored — and they want to add another crime-solving tool to the network: automated license plate readers.

The controversy surrounding the Smart Streetlights began in 2019 when it was revealed that the cameras had been in place for three years with no public input.

Police began accessing the CCTV footage for investigation in 2018. Direct access was shut down in 2020 due to public outcry.

Because the Smart Streetlight cameras had not been properly maintained over the years, the city had to install new cameras. Adding the license plate reader technology would be the first time the City of San Diego would have the readers in fixed locations.

This is the first major push for surveillance technology in San Diego since the city passed ordinances last year that specifically set rules to regulate this type of technology in light of privacy concerns.

Those ordinances detail the lengthy process of obtaining permission to use surveillance technology, and include holding community meetings to collect public input. There are 10 rallies planned throughout the city next weekand the department will accept public comments until March 10, 5 p.m.

The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The Union-Tribune also contacted the office of Councilman Monica Montgomery Steppe, who has pushed for transparency in the city’s use of the technology. Her office said it could not comment before the publication deadline.

If approved, the plan would make San Diego the largest city in the U.S. to use both cameras and license plate readers as part of a single network, according to police. 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 funds and grants.

Police say the cameras and license plate readers are important investigative tools, and the department wants to use the cameras to investigate crimes, locate missing persons, respond to critical incidents and protect the city’s assets and resources.

At a time when the department faces staffing shortages, the technology’s ability to help agents investigate and solve crimes acts as a “power multiplier,” Captain Jeffrey Jordon said Wednesday. Jordon called license plate readers “the greatest asset to law enforcement as far as technology is concerned.”

“For us, especially given our unique staffing needs, this is probably the most vital piece of technology we can add right now to make a difference to our officers,” said Jordon.

According to a card issued by the department, the technology would be placed all over the city, from Carmel Mountain Ranch to San Ysidro. Many of the locations are near highways and along thoroughfares. Locations include La Jolla Village Drive near Westfield UTC, Friars Road near Fashion Valley, Park Boulevard in Balboa Park, West Mission Bay Drive near Mission Bay, El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights, Market Street in various neighborhoods in southeastern San Diego and Logan Avenue near Chicano Park.

Jordon said the department used crime data and input from investigators in units such as homicide, robbery, sex crimes and gangs to find the locations. “It was a combination of data and input,” Jordan said.

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 corners that collect video from public areas, with the aim of staying away from areas where the public expects privacy.

Any video that the police decide to use to investigate crimes will be downloaded from the software. Other images captured by cameras are overwritten after 15 days. According to the department, facial recognition would not be part of the technology.

Department officials said the camera feed would not be monitored in real time. Rather, it would be used as an investigative tool after a crime has been committed.

Likewise, the department would use the license plate readers for “official law enforcement purposes,” such as when cars are stolen or wanted in connection with certain crimes, under the proposed rules.

The technology scans license plates as vehicles drive by and detects whether the number can be found in any law enforcement databases the system has access to. If the system takes a hit, the software alerts the department’s control room.

The police could add license plate data to the system to be tipped off about wanted vehicles.

Compared to the cameras, more employees – including detectives – would have access to the license plate recognition technology. The data is kept for 30 days and then deleted.

But first the police must get permission to use the technology. To do this, it must follow the procedure established in the city’s two new technical regulations.

Approved in August, they will collectively be named Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology, or TRUST. One established rules for the use of technology, the other established the Privacy Advisory Board to provide guidance in the hopes of ensuring transparency, accountability and public debate.

The San Diego Police Department plans to meet with the Privacy Advisory Board on March 15.

Several community groups came together to create TRUST San Diego Coalition, which helped draft the ordinances. Coalition steering committee member Seth Hall praised the city for “coming to the table before this technology was bought and installed.”

“However, it is important that communities and neighborhoods understand why this technology is being targeted to them, who will benefit from having this technology in their neighborhood and what the exact cost will be to taxpayers,” Hall said Wednesday.

“I wonder if there are things in this city that they would rather spend millions on than mass surveillance technology,” he said.

The department commissioned an online survey of 914 people to collect their input on license plate readers and cameras in public.

The survey found that 42% of respondents said they would feel safer if the San Diego Police Department used automatic license plate readers, and 13% said they would feel less safe. Nearly half – 47% – said they would feel safer if the San Diego Police Department used cameras in public areas, and 10% said they would feel less safe.

The idea behind the installation of the $30 million Smart Streetlights program was to collect data on factors such as weather and pedestrian and vehicle movement to improve street mobility. But the city’s grand vision never materialized.

Still, the cameras tucked into the streetlights kept rolling. Most people had no idea they were there.

In 2018, the police discovered they had access to the cameras – and began doing so to solve crimes, most of which involved assaults, homicides, robberies and accidents resulting in serious injury or death.

The public didn’t learn about the surveillance technology until 2019. The civil rights outcry that followed led San Diego to cut off camera access until it could write rules governing the use of the cameras and all surveillance technology. The idea behind the regulations was to create more transparency and protect civil liberties.

Under the regulations, the surveillance technology will be reviewed annually and through a civil rights lens. They are calling for data breaches to be disclosed and whether equipment is worth the money. The public will be able to discuss proposals for surveillance technology before the city goes ahead with it.

For more information on the department’s proposed use of the technology and next week’s scheduled meetings, visit sandiego.gov/police/data-transparency/technology.