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San Diego City Council committee supports smart streetlight surveillance cameras

The San Diego City Council’s Public Safety Committee has approved a plan to use cameras, mounted on streetlights, to gather public video and help investigate crime.

The committee voted 3 to 1 to approve the San Diego Police Department's smart streetlight plan, after more than an hour of public testimony that was mostly opposed to it.

The San Diego police say they want to use 1,000 cameras in 500 places and their locations are on a map, available on the police department’s website.


Streetlight cameras were used by police in the previous decade, but opposition rose up against them, causing Mayor Kevin Faulconer to order police to stop using the cameras in 2020. The streetlight cameras used in the past are still installed and still collecting images, even though police have no access to them.

Opponents of the streetlight cameras argued at Wednesday’s committee meeting that the project would be a violation of privacy rights that could unfairly criminalize communities of color.

Many of the people who spoke against the plan didn’t necessarily object to the letter of the police policy but clearly stated that they didn’t trust the police to use the footage in the public's interest. Some said they believed that they, not criminals, were the ones being watched.

Yusef Miller, a representative with the group Activist San Diego, said the police are suggesting people must simply trust them to use the cameras in the right way.

The ones who promise to do the right thing are the same ones who stop Black and brown communities four times higher than their white counterparts,” he said. “Please don’t fall for this smokescreen.”

An undated image from a City of San Diego presentation demonstrating the functionality of the city's smart streetlights.
Courtesy of the City of San Diego
An undated image from a City of San Diego presentation demonstrating the functionality of the city's smart streetlights.

Supporters of the surveillance cameras argued that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public places, and the cameras can provide vital evidence when police or witnesses are not around to observe criminal activity.

“From my own personal experience as a prosecutor, the number of cases I had to dismiss because there was no evidence captured, and the deep disappointment of the victims in who asked, ‘How is it possible that I have been victimized so badly and there’s nothing that can be done?’” said District 7 Councilmember Raul Campillo, who voted in favor of the plan.

“We’re going to emphasize these cameras along these arterial (routes) to bring a sense of satisfaction to the public that we’re doing what we need to do to solve crimes and prevent them from becoming victims,” Campillo said.

Councilmembers Marni von Wilpert and Jennifer Campbell also voted in favor.

The only vote against the plan came from District 4 Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, whose district will be home to a large percentage of the cameras.

The San Diego Privacy Advisory Board voted against the police department proposal last month. The final decision about the use of streetlight cameras will go before the full City Council.