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Under Pressure From Privacy Advocates, San Diego Mayor Shuts Down Streetlight Cameras

A camera is seen on a streetlight in the city of San Diego, Sept. 17, 2019.
Matt Hoffman
A camera is seen on a streetlight in the city of San Diego, Sept. 17, 2019.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer this week ordered cameras attached to some of the city's streetlights to be shut off until the City Council approves an ordinance regulating their use by law enforcement.

The move, which he announced via Twitter on Thursday, came after more than a year of pressure from privacy advocates to implement stronger oversight of the cameras. The city signed a deal to acquire the so-called "smart streetlights" in 2016, originally intending to use them to save energy, monitor traffic patterns and improve transportation planning.

Under Pressure From Privacy Advocates, San Diego Mayor Shuts Down Streetlight Cameras
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

But the cameras were never able to produce valuable data for those purposes. In August 2018, the San Diego Police Department began accessing footage from the cameras and using it in criminal investigations. SDPD crafted its own policy on when detectives could use the footage roughly six months later.

VIDEO: Under Pressure From Privacy Advocates, Faulconer Shuts Down Streetlight Cameras

That sparked an outcry from privacy advocates, who said the city had never had a public debate over the streetlights' use by law enforcement, and police could not be trusted to self-regulate.

Late last week, Faulconer floated a proposal to extend the contract for the streetlights and transfer their administration to SDPD, abandoning all efforts to use them for transportation planning. He backed off that request Wednesday.

In his tweets, Faulconer highlighted the cameras' usefulness in solving crimes and accused the City Council of dragging its feet on approving regulations.

"I support—and proposed—clear rules for this tech, but the City Council stalled on legislation," Faulconer said. "They won’t approve funds without legislation, so there’s no choice but to turn them off until Council acts."

But Councilmember Monica Montgomery said Faulconer's original proposal for regulating the streetlights' use by police was presented as a "council policy" and not an ordinance. Council policies are weaker and more difficult to enforce.

"We have to hold our integrity high, we have to do what we say we're going to do," Montgomery said. "And in this instance we need a true, strong oversight framework, and I'm glad that the mayor is motivated to get that done."

Montgomery added that she, Councilmember Chris Ward and Council President Georgette Gomez had called for a moratorium on using the cameras or installing more of them in October 2019.

Last July the council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee recommended approval of an ordinance crafted by Montgomery's office that would regulate the use of all kinds of surveillance technology in the city. The committee also signed off on the creation of a new Privacy Advisory Commission.

Montgomery said those proposals recently underwent a legal review by the City Attorney's Office, which called for more policy discussion and budget analysis before a final ordinance could be voted on by the full City Council. Montgomery declined to speculate on when that vote would happen.