Public Safety Committee Moves Surveillance Ordinances To Full Council
A San Diego City Council committee voted unanimously Wednesday to move two major privacy and civil liberties ordinances in front of the full council.
In two separate motions, the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee approved a proposed ordinance establishing rules for the city's acquisition and use of surveillance equipment and technology and to establish a Privacy Advisory Commission — which would provide advice and technical assistance to the city on best practices to protect citizen privacy rights in connection with the purchase and use of surveillance equipment and other technology that collects or stores citizen data.
Committee Chair Monica Montgomery said the move forward with the two proposed ordinances fit her "road map" to police reform.
"From the beginning of my administration, I have championed a holistic approach to reform measures, including economic justice components," Montgomery said. "As elected officials, we must honestly and genuinely begin to reimagine policing to address the systemic racism that is prevalent in our region. This road map is a guidepost for my office, as we develop a plan to tackle the barriers to accountability and transparency in policing and public safety."
The impetus of the increased interest in privacy and civil liberties is tied to the City Council's 2016 decision to upgrade city infrastructure with nearly 3,000 "smart streetlights" from General Electric. The streetlights were equipped with sensors to help extract numbers on traffic, pedestrian flow and environmental data. However, concerns quickly arose from residents and civil liberties groups on the oversight and use of video footage that could be recorded on the lights.
The San Diego Police Department has used footage hundreds of times in attempts to solve serious crimes, including more than 30 times in investigating homicides. Even so, oversight of how the police department can use the footage is minimal. During protests over police practices and the treatment of Black Americans in the wake of the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the SDPD used the smart streetlights nearly 40 times in just five days to investigate protesters for incidents of vandalism and looting, the nonprofit investigative news organization Voice of San Diego found.
"I was not on the council when the streetlights were approved, but I know the surveillance capabilities were never disclosed or discussed," said Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, a member of the committee.
Around 30 members of the public called in to comment on the item, the majority expressing support for the proposed surveillance technology rules and for the privacy commission.
"We are not lab rats," said one man. "We have to make sure we have oversight in this. This commission should have been part of the original plan with the streetlights."