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San Diego police host meetings on smart streetlights for community input

San Diego police held the first of nine community meetings today on the proposed use of smart streetlights to solve crimes. These are streetlights equipped with surveillance cameras and license-plate readers. The program was shut down in 2020 after a community backlash. Now police want to restart it. KPBS reporter Alexander Nguyen is in Otay Mesa where one of those meetings was held with what community members have to say.

The San Diego Police Department on Monday held the first of nine community meetings on the proposed use of smart streetlights, equipped with surveillance cameras and license-plate readers.

The department is doing this to comply with the Surveillance Ordinance and to get community input. The program was shuttered in 2020 after a community backlash.

At the meeting, police touted the benefits of smart streetlights to solve crimes. Before the program was shuttered, videos from these streetlights were used in 400 crime investigations.


The sessions are scheduled for:

  • March 6, 1 p.m.-4 p.m., Otay Mesa-Nestor Branch Library, 3003 Coronado Ave.;
  • March 6, 5 p.m.-8 p.m., Rancho Penasquitos Library, 13330 Salmon River Road;
  • March 7, 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Education First Building, 3455 Kenyon St.;
  • March 7, 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Balboa Park Club, 2150 Pan American Road West;
  • March 8, 1 p.m.-3 p.m., SDPD Mid-City Division station, 4310 Landis St,;
  • March 8, 5 p.m.-7 p.m., City View Church, 8404 Phyllis Place;
  • March 9, noon-3 p.m., Mira Mesa Library, 8405 New Salem St.;
  • March 9, 5 p.m.-7:30 p.m., Bridge Church, 3714 Teak St.; and
  • March 10, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m., La Jolla Recreation Center, 615 Prospect St.

Police said evidence from these streetlights helped increased conviction rates, reduced violence and saved investigation time.

Lilly Irani, a computer science professor at UC San Diego and a member of the TRUST Coalition, which advocates for transparent and responsible use of surveillance technology by law enforcement, said there are questions police need to answer before she's comfortable letting the city install these smart streetlights.

"One of the things that we just don't know is what exactly is the public safety problem that the police are trying to solve," Irani said. "And also, what are the possible glitches and problems with this artificial intelligence, this kind of automation of surveillance is going to unleash on the police, on the city and on residents?”

She said AI has triggered false alerts before, and mainly on people of color. That's a concern for San Diego resident Omar Araiza as well. He was at the meeting to get some answers.

"I'm wondering what are the statistics that are being analyzed here in our district as well as the nine other districts to justify the decision-making process,” Araiza said.


San Diego police Capt. Jeff Jordan said SDPD shares the public’s concerns and that’s part of the reason why the department is holding these meetings.

“We’re looking to find that balance where we’re using this technology in a legal, ethical manner (and) at the same time answering questions that give people pause about how we’re ensuring their privacy rights," he said.

Part of the concern was over how long video captured by these streetlights will be stored on the city's server and if the video will be shared with other government agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Jordan said most video is only stored for 15 days on a secured server and 30 days if it's part of an active investigation. He said video evidence will only be shared with other agencies for criminal investigations and not for immigration enforcement.

Some residents were concerned about police using this technology to monitor residents. Jordan said that these are reactive tools and are only used after a crime has been reported.

SDPD is holding these meetings all week around the city.

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