Crime cameras for the defense

If the cameras can be used for prosecution, they ought to be available to lawyers for people who want to establish an alibi

EDITORIAL We've always been dubious about San Francisco's crime cameras. Filming everyone who passes through a public space creates severe civil liberties problems. There are real First Amendment issues. And as far as we can tell, the spy cams don't work very well: none of the 178 cameras on Housing Authority property have ever led to an arrest in a homicide case. Chief Heather Fong told the Police Commission on Feb. 6 that her officers have requested footage nearly 80 times but only twice was it at all useful.

From the first days when the city began talking about installing the cameras, the American Civil Liberties Union and others pointed out that all the electronic surveillance on high-crime street corners would do was drive crime to other places. The commission has mandated that the cameras be turned off during political demonstrations, and some critics, including commissioner David Campos, are watching very closely to see if all of this intrusive electronic surveillance is making the city any safer.

But if we're going to have crime cameras, they ought to be used to protect the innocent.

As G.W. Schulz reports on page 16, the San Francisco Public Defender's Office has an interest in using the footage. Last August two young African American men were arrested and charged with robbing a pair of airline workers at the corner of 14th Street and Mission. The alleged robbers insisted they hadn't been at that corner; in fact, they said, they were two blocks away, at 16th Street and Mission, the entire time.

That should have been easy to prove: there are cameras at 16th Street and Mission. But the city's Department of Emergency Management refused to turn over the video footage to the public defender. Only by chance and the intervention of a conscientious police inspector was the lawyer for the two men able to get the tapes — which proved that the young men, who faced long prison sentences, were entirely innocent.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi says there are at least a dozen other examples of incidents when the cameras could have proved one of his clients innocent — but the local law enforcement authorities won't give up the pictures.

That's crazy. If the cameras can be used for prosecution, they ought to be available to lawyers for people who want to establish an alibi. There's little or no risk here: defense lawyers are officers of the court, sworn to protect confidential evidence, and they are routinely given access to sensitive law enforcement information. The entire principle of a fair trial requires that the defense have as much opportunity to prove innocence as the prosecution does to prove guilt — and in most cases all of the state's evidence has to be turned over to the defense. If cops and prosecutors can see the city's crime-camera tapes, why can't the other side?

Sup. Gerardo Sandoval, a former public defender, has introduced legislation that would allow defense lawyers access to the tapes; it's a sensible, practical measure that ought to win easy approval. But Kevin Ryan, the Republican former United States attorney who runs Mayor Gavin Newsom's office of criminal justice, is trying to scuttle Sandoval's bill. This is exactly the sort of thing we were worried about when Newsom gave that job to an old-fashioned law-and-order type.

Newsom needs to show his cards on this issue. Does the mayor really think the cameras should be used only to lock people up and never to set them free? That would be an astonishing stance for a San Francisco mayor. Instead of leaving this to his aides, Newsom needs to come out in support of Sandoval's bill and give Ryan a little primer on justice, San Francisco–style.