OPINION In July last year, San Francisco began installing video surveillance cameras to monitor the public streets. What quietly started as a pilot program with two cameras in the Western Addition has quickly expanded, with more than 30 cameras throughout the city. The Mayor's Office is seeking to install 22 more cameras at a number of locations, including heavily trafficked areas such as the 16th Street and Mission and 24th Street and Mission intersections.
On Nov. 15 the Police Commission will decide whether to approve the installation of additional cameras. It should reject the mayor's proposal and send a strong message that scarce public safety dollars should be spent on less intrusive and more effective programs such as increased foot patrols, improved lighting, and community policing.
While surveillance cameras may seem like an intuitive solution to the serious problem of violent crime, in reality cameras pose significant threats to civil liberties while providing few public safety benefits. Study after study demonstrates that video surveillance does not reduce violent crime in cities.
In Britain, for example, where there is one camera for every 13 people and the average person is photographed more than 300 times a day, a recent comprehensive review of 13 jurisdictions showed that cameras do not reduce crime or fear of crime. A University of Cincinnati study found that cameras in its city merely shifted crime beyond the cameras' view. As Cincinnati police captain Kimberly Frey mentioned in one recent news report, "We've never really gotten anything useful from them.... We've never had a successful prosecution.... We're trying to use ... money for other things."
With limited public safety dollars, cameras deprive more effective programs of funds that would significantly reduce crime. Studies show that improved lighting can reduce crime 20 percent, and increased foot patrols have also been shown to significantly impact crime, including violent offenses.
Moreover, the ever-increasing expansion of surveillance cameras poses a significant threat to our privacy. The prospect of 24-hour surveillance of innocent San Franciscans — with video accessible to city officials and the public under state open-records laws — is chilling in and of itself. If the trend continues, cameras installed today may be paired with other new developments, such as facial recognition and Radio Frequency Identification technology, giving law enforcement the ability to develop dossiers about our personal lives.
While San Francisco has some regulations governing camera use, those regulations have already changed and may change again, due to an overreaching political response to crime concerns. To see San Francisco's future, one need only look to the inspiration for the program — Chicago. There, Mayor Richard M. Daley recently announced a plan that by 2016 would put a camera on almost every street corner in the city.
In light of the significant privacy and free speech implications and limited public safety benefit, the Police Commission should decisively reject further camera placement and strongly urge the mayor and Board of Supervisors to pursue effective programs. San Franciscans deserve more than symbolic measures like video surveillance cameras in response to very real crime problems. Scarce public resources should not be spent on ineffective Big Brother surveillance programs. SFBG
Mark Schlosberg and Nicole A. Ozer
Mark Schlosberg is police practices policy director, and Nicole A. Ozer is technology and civil liberties policy director, respectively, for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.