SF Mayor’s solution to difficult circumstances: Get rid of civil liberties protections

Illustration of a person contained in a glass envclosure, being watched by humanoid cameras with eyes.
Kelsey Choe/Staff

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On Dec. 14, 2021, San Francisco Mayor London Breed issued public statements that were quite breathtaking in their level of vitriol and lack of vision. Promising to “make life hell” for those with substance abuse problems in the Tenderloin, echoes of the disastrous War on Drugs permeated her speech.

In June 2019, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors easily enacted a surveillance technology framework to thoroughly vet existing and emerging technologies — those used by law enforcement and by various “smart city” applications. The framework calls for an upfront impact analysis prior to implementation and an accompanying use policy with sufficient guardrails to mitigate potential harm, and an ongoing reporting obligation to provide the public and board with insights as to the effectiveness of the technology at achieving its purported goals within budget.

To date, dozens of the city’s departments have complied with the framework, and relevant to this conversation and the mayor’s comments — 19 separate camera policies have been unanimously approved. None were submitted by the San Francisco Police Department, or SFPD.

Essentially revealing that her commitment during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 to reallocate funds from SFPD toward Black-led organizations was a sham, Breed is now proposing to gut the existing ordinance with the board’s cooperation, or if that fails, to do an end run around the board and go to the voters to achieve the same goal.

The mayor is hoping to capitalize on the local media hype that has been complicit in spreading false “copaganda.” The Los Angeles Times exposed the retail theft numbers being bandied about as false, and the FBI states property and violent crimes in our state — and specifically in San Francisco — are dropping.

Breed neglected to spend the $120 million on services the board had already provided to her — resources that could have mitigated what we see in the Tenderloin — and has provided no evidence that cameras and increased enforcement will cure these ills. Instead, she has decided to return to cracking down on crime through police reign of power.

These “solutions” have been researched and thoroughly discredited before. In 1998, the National Institute of Justice conducted a meta-study of more than 500 evaluations on crime prevention, finding that “increased arrests or raids on drug markets fail to reduce violent crime or disorder for more than a few days, if at all.” Ten years later, UC Berkeley’s Jennifer King, Deirdre Mulligan, Steven Raphael, Travis Richardson and Jasjeet Sekhon specifically studied San Francisco’s Community Safety Camera Program, finding “no evidence of an impact of the Community Safety Cameras on violent crime,” and that “no evidence of any effect of the cameras on drug incidents, or on prostitution, vandalism, and incidences described as suspicious occurrences” was found.

Breed also made no reference to SFPD’s present use of 44 surveillance technologies or why such use has resulted in a very low 10.2% burglary clearance rate, an automobile theft clearance rate of 7.1% and a mere 2.4% larceny-theft clearance rate in 2021.

The mayor’s proposal places broad unilateral authority into the hands of law enforcement, and essentially guts the existing oversight framework by allowing the SFPD to individually establish a “public safety crisis area” where civil liberties don’t apply, and to determine when a “critical event” allows for unfettered use of surveillance technologies. This is a pure power grab by the mayor, attempting to be both the administrative and legislative branches.

When SFPD didn’t properly verify the accuracy of Denise Green’s license plate scan and seven officers pulled guns on her after throwing her on the ground, the city of San Francisco settled to pay her $495,000. The increased use of these tools, with license plate readers having a known error rate of at least 10%, will certainly lead to more lawsuits if proper oversight doesn’t occur.

This problem is not unique to San Francisco. The mayors of San Jose, Oakland and Berkeley are all calling for expanded mass surveillance technologies to address public safety concerns in their respective communities. Like San Francisco, Berkeley has been ignoring its own surveillance ordinance, as the City Council recently authorized funding for cameras and license plate readers prior to those items first being properly vetted as required by law.

If Breed and SFPD are successful in gutting San Francisco’s oversight framework, there will likely be a ripple effect in these other jurisdictions.

People are understandably frustrated with the lack of leadership present among many local governments. What is occurring in the Tenderloin should not be treated casually, encouraged or tolerated.

No one living, residing or passing through should have to fear violence, but more police surveillance is not the answer. When expert data shows that community support services achieve a far greater impact on community safety, without destroying civil liberties to get there, why would the voters of San Francisco support yesterday’s failed strategies?

The board needs to remain firm and support its original correct decision to enact the ordinance. The mayor could have attempted to enter through the front door by submitting a proposed use policy for cameras. Instead, she is choosing to blow up the house with her alternate proposal.

Brian Hofer is the executive director of Secure Justice and a co-author of the San Francisco surveillance ordinance. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.