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A smart streetlight located near the entrance of the San Diego State University campus is pictured June 4, 2019.
Lynn Walsh
A smart streetlight located near the entrance of the San Diego State University campus is pictured June 4, 2019.

San Diego City Council's Public Safety Committee approves smart streetlight contract

The San Diego City Council's Public Safety Committee gave the San Diego Police Department tentative approval Friday to move forward with "smart streetlights" and automated license plate reader technology.

The five-year agreement with Ubicquia and Flock Safety must first go to the full city council for approval.

"We have ample evidence that Smart Streetlights and ALPRs help the San Diego Police Department quickly identify and apprehend suspects in deadly crimes and bring them to justice, which makes our communities safer," Mayor Todd Gloria said. "I appreciate the many hours our police department has dedicated to ensuring transparency around the use of these important tools and look forward to council consideration of the contract that will enable us to deploy them."


According to the contract, purchasing the technologies together is cheaper than if the two were purchased and maintained independently.

The initial cost for the devices in Fiscal Year 2024 is around $3.5 million and will include a one-time $1.5 million installation and maintenance cost and $2 million for hardware, software and connectivity. The program will then cost around $2 million annually. Mayor Gloria earmarked $4 million in his Fiscal Year 2024 budget for the Smart Streetlight project.

"Having access to video and ALPR data at investigators' fingertips will be a game-changer for the San Diego Police Department," SDPD Chief David Nisleit said. "Our teams have expended hours working through the process to get to this point. We look forward to getting this agreement across the finish line soon so that we can put this technology to work solving crimes."

The police department received approval by the City Council in August for the use of the combined Smart Streetlight cameras and ALPR technologies in an initial 500 locations citywide.

Others found Gloria and Nisleit's comments hollow, referring to a lack of transparency from the city and the administration blaming the city's surveillance ordinance passed in 2022 as slowing the process to get technologies deployed.

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A stipulation of that ordinance is that Gloria's administration must provide a list of the city's existing technology — a list that has gone unpublished, privacy advocates said.

"The mayor failed to hand in his required homework for the last 2 years, and instead of accepting responsibility for his failure, he now insists that we must reform the homework system," said Seth Hall of San Diego Privacy, a member of the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego Commission. "It is the mayor, not the ordinance, who has held police technology hostage by refusing to be transparent.

"Instead of holding press conferences and creating presentations to make excuses, the mayor should spend his time doing the work that was assigned to him and that he has been completely aware of for the last two years," Hall said.

According to the department, the SDPD publicly posts information about the technologies used by the department, including access, data storage and retention, the release of data and information collected and more on its technology web page.

Every city department must comply with the surveillance ordinance for each technology that meets the criteria for surveillance. According to the city, it has around 300 technologies that may be defined under the ordinance, with more than 70 of them being used by SDPD to "conduct investigations, enhance response to critical incidents and public threats and safeguard the lives of community members."

When the council voted to allow the technologies to move forward in August, City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said he was frustrated at how the conversation on the smart streetlights and license plate readers was being presented — as a false choice between wanting safety or valuing civil liberties.

"I could not value the safety of my constituents any more," he said then. "Any inference about the rest of us not worried about that is disingenuous and counterproductive. People cannot feel safe if they do not trust the community they are living in."

Elo-Rivera said he didn't trust a process that sidestepped recommendations from various appointed technology and privacy boards

"It's not a slight at SDPD ... there are too many unanswered questions here," he said.

According to a statement from Gloria's office, the Smart Streetlights can only operate in conjunction with an LED streetlight. If an LED streetlight is already in place, the technology can be easily connected to the streetlight without modification. In the event a designated location is not LED-equipped, the streetlight will be replaced with an LED light.

Gloria intended to bring forward amendments to the Surveillance Ordinance in November to "help move technologies through the approval and procurement processes more quickly so that it does not hinder city department operations and public safety," according to his office.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.