SFPD has been quietly seeking video footage of new bars since losing a public fight over the issue
SFPD IS WATCHING
When SFPD first sought new video surveillance tools — back in 2005, when the department asked for 71 video cameras at high-crime intersections around the city — it was rigorously debated in public hearings for months. And when they were finally approved by the Board of Supervisors, they included an extensive set of controls on when SFPD could request footage — the department wasn't even allowed to control the cameras directly — how it could be used and when it must be erased.
The legislation also required a follow-up study of their effectiveness in deterring and prosecuting crimes. Conducted by the University of California's Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) in 2008, the report found the cameras had no impact on violent crime rates but a small deterrent impact on property crimes in the filmed areas.
As a tool for prosecuting crimes after the fact, "There has been limited success with the cameras acting as a 'silent witness,' with footage standing in for witness testimony; some anecdotal evidence suggests that the existence of CSC program footage can actually deter witnesses from cooperating under the assumption that the cameras have caught all necessary evidence," the report said, also noting that twice in the 120 police requests made by 2008, footage resulted in charges being dropped or downgraded.
But today, SFPD apparently believes that times have changed, and that the rigorous oversight and evaluation of video surveillance tactics and their implications on people's privacy rights — or even the need to notify the public that SFPD is seeking new ways to watch citizens — are no longer necessary.
"Over the last few years, we've increased the number of recommendations for video surveillance, for a few reasons," SFPD spokesperson Gordon Shyy told the Guardian, citing how cheap and ubiquitous the technology has become and the role that video footage can play in solving crimes.
Yet attorney Michael Rischer with the ACLU of Northern California, who actively opposed the SFPD's proposal in 2011 and was dismayed to hear the department secretly and unilaterally expanded its video surveillance reach after its proposal was rejected, said that reasoning is exactly why there are legal controls on the expanding police state.
"Both of those justifications are exceedingly troubling and they demonstrate why the San Francisco Police Department should not be doing this in some room sealed off from the public," Rischer said. "The police have this totally backward. The ease and cost of doing this is a reason why these protections are in place."
Unlike under federal law, Californians have an explicit constitutional privacy guarantee and a body of case law defining that right in great detail. But the SFPD doesn't seem to be aware of the nuances of that case law, such as the distinction it makes between people's expectation of privacy on public streets versus in private businesses.
"When you enter a bar or restaurant, you don't have an expectation of privacy," Shyy told us.
But Rischer said that just isn't true under the law. He noted that people do indeed have a reasonable expectation that they can enter a gay bar without being outed, for example, or that police won't be able to demand video from a gathering in a bar where subversive political ideas are being discussed. And those concerns are exacerbated by SFPD's policy that bar owners must simply turn over footage "upon demand."
"The notion that the government is requiring a business to conduct surveillance of its patrons and to turn it over to the Police Department without any judicial oversight or even rules is deeply troubling and probably unconstitutional," Rischer said.