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Lights, Cameras, Inaction: San Francisco’s Broken Surveillance State

At 9:30pm one night last June, gunshots rang out near the corner of Haight and Webster.

"Three gunshots just fired on Webster between Haight and Page," one resident tweeted. "Gunfire @ Haight/Webster. 3-4 shots fired," wrote another.

Police responded to the scene after receiving multiple calls from witnesses. One caller had reported seeing a man running from the area, but didn't get a good enough look to provide a description. 

When officers arrived, they found no shells, no damage, and no victims. It was as if nothing had happened. Without any evidence, police were unable to identify or apprehend anyone. The incident received no further attention.

The lack of evidence was particularly curious given that the intersection was being filmed from above, as it has been continuously since 2006, by four active video cameras. 

Conventional wisdom in the Lower Haight has it that these video cameras — two on the northwest corner, two on the southeast — have been turned off for years. In reality, the cameras are not turned off. But their ability to deter crime, and to provide evidence after the fact, is hampered by a complex combination of events that began unfolding nearly a decade ago.

In response to a reader's inquiry, Hoodline recently investigated the usage of these community safety cameras throughout San Francisco. What we found is a system that lacks oversight, uses inadequate technology, and operates in ongoing violation of the very ordinance that created it. 

The origin of a flawed system

2005 was a particularly violent year in San Francisco.

The city’s homicide rate, following a dramatic decline in the late ‘90s, had surged to its highest level in a decade. The Western Addition saw an especially brutal summer, underscored by three separate fatal shootings over one eight-day stretch. Auto thefts, burglaries, robberies and assaults were also on the rise citywide.

Against this backdrop, all eyes turned to San Francisco's new mayor Gavin Newsom, who had taken office the year before. Newsom had publicly pledged to take aggressive action to reduce violent crime in the city. If the homicide rate didn’t come down that year, Newsom told a caller on a radio program, “you can begin the campaign to recall me.”

Newsom, along with new SFPD chief Heather Fong, pursued various strategies for tackling the city's growing crime problem. Funds were allocated to hire more cops, with the goal of increasing foot patrols in the most crime-ridden areas. The ranks of the SFPD's gang task force swelled by almost a dozen officers. More than a thousand guns were confiscated by authorities, Fong announced. 

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away, Chicago officials were expanding their own cutting edge — and controversial — program to combat that city’s crime problem. 



Beginning in 2003, the city had installed a network of 30 surveillance cameras at high-crime locations throughout Chicago. The cameras were equipped with gunshot detectors; within five seconds of bullets being fired nearby, the cameras would notify the city’s 9-1-1 center, prompting police to send units to the scene. The cameras would also automatically swivel toward the direction of the gunshots, potentially capturing footage that might help lead to an arrest. They could be controlled remotely, zooming in on details from blocks away.

Gavin Newsom visited Chicago in June of 2005 for the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors. While there, he had a chance to meet with police and observe the surveillance cameras in action. He was impressed by their potential.

"I never in my life imagined that I would be here taking seriously the prospect of advocating for cameras to be in high-crime areas," the Chronicle quoted Newsom as saying during his visit. "At the same time, people are really starting to talk about them as a tremendous tool in stopping and fighting crime in particular hot spots."

Newsom thought a similar program could be successful in San Francisco. Not only would the cameras potentially deter crime, the theory went, but they could help solve a persistent problem: the reluctance of witnesses to step forward and testify in gang-related cases.  The cameras would act as witnesses in situations where humans, out of concern for their own safety, might not.

Newsom envisioned a small 90-day pilot program involving just a handful of cameras, to gauge both community support and any potential privacy concerns that might arise. "I want to test it and see what the reaction is.”

Within a month, Newsom’s proposed pilot program was underway. 


Google Maps

The pilot program

On July 29th, 2005, two surveillance cameras were installed outside the Plaza East housing project at the corner of Eddy and Buchanan, a site described at the time by the Chronicle as "a hot spot for the drug trade and related violence." The cameras cost a combined $18,000, which the city paid for with assets it had seized in the course of drug-related arrests. The Chicago program was funded in the same fashion.

From the beginning, Newsom acknowledged potential civil liberty concerns associated with the camera initiative. As such, he made a number of concessions to limit the scope of the San Francisco program, relative to its Chicago counterpart.

For example, the San Francisco cameras had no audio recording capacity, and thus could not detect gunfire. The cameras also could not easily change position, nor did they have any night vision capability.  Most importantly, they would not be monitored in real-time; instead, footage would be recorded. To view it, police would have to file a request with the city’s Department of Emergency Managament.

The pilot program lasted 90 days, as planned. At the end of that period, Newsom announced some encouraging results. 

In his State of the City address on October 26th 2005, Newsom said that the cameras were working:

“Initial figures show that crime dropped 32% at the corner of Eddy and Buchanan. Assaults, robberies and burglaries are all down as when compared with the same period the year before. In response to this early data, and at the request of the community, we will place additional safety cameras in high crime areas in the Mission, Hunters Point and the Bayview. The new cameras will go up on the same basis as our original pilot for 90 days.”
Over the next few months, 31 more cameras were installed throughout the city. In interviews with local media, many residents in high-crime areas cheered the program’s expansion. However, some notable voices of opposition began to emerge at the same time. 

In March of 2006, the ACLU, which had largely remained silent on the San Francisco camera program, began raising concerns. Specifically, the organization feared that the cameras might inhibit participation in political demonstrations or other expressions of free speech. The cameras might also violate citizens’ right to privacy. The Chronicle quoted ACLU attorney Nicole Ozer as saying at the time:

"The reality is, surveillance cameras are creeping into neighborhoods all over the city. And we're not talking about the grainy surveillance cameras of yesteryear. These can zoom in and see what you're wearing, who you're talking to and who you kiss goodbye. This is scary stuff.”
Finally, the ACLU argued that the cameras lacked the guidelines, or any kind of oversight for that matter, to ensure that they would indeed be used only to deter and solve violent crimes, as had been their stated purpose.

The Community Safety Camera Ordinance

Partly in response to those concerns, the Board of Supervisors moved to enact legislation known as the Community Safety Camera (CSC) ordinance. The legislation, sponsored by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi (whose district included the Western Addition), outlined the rules for installing new cameras and conditions for their oversight. It stipulated, in part:

“The City and County of San Francisco may install community safety cameras for the purpose of enhancing public security only in locations experiencing substantial crime and where the potential to deter criminal activity outweighs any concerns asserted by the affected community as determined by the Police Commission. The cameras shall record areas perceptible to the human eye from public streets and sidewalks only. Images obtained by the community safety cameras may be released to sworn members of the San Francisco Police Department holding the rank of Inspector or higher only. Police shall limit review of images to investigation of specific crimes.”
Footage from the cameras was mandated to be stored for exactly 30 days — no more, no less. The legislation also required the Police Commission to hold a public hearing before final approval of any new camera locations.  

Finally, to address the concerns about oversight, one additional clause was included:

"The Police Department shall prepare an annual report on all community safety cameras located in the City and County of San Francisco. The report shall identify the camera locations, the crime statistics for the vicinity surrounding each camera both before and after the camera is installed, crime statistics from surrounding vicinities, the number of times the Police Department requested copies of the recorded images, the number of times the images were used to bring criminal charges, the types of charges brought, and the results of the charges. The Department shall issue the first report no later than one year following the date of the first camera installation approval by the Police Commission and not less often than once yearly thereafter. Based upon information provided in the annual report, the Police Commission may direct the removal of any individual camera(s)."
The ordinance was approved by the Board of Supervisors by a 10-0 vote (one member of the Board was excused). It was signed into law by Mayor Newsom on June 23, 2006.

In November of that year, Newsom was pushing for an additional 22 cameras to be installed throughout the city. The SF Police Commission held a hearing to consider the new cameras, as was now required by the new legislation. At the hearing, an ACLU spokesperson again raised concerns about the cameras’ effectiveness, and the potential for privacy abuses. Despite that opposition, the Commission approved the proposal unanimously.

By 2007, 71 cameras had been installed at 16 high-crime locations around the city:


A total of over $700,000 was used to procure and install the cameras, with an additional $200,000 allocated each year for maintenance.

The CITRIS report

After the cameras had been in place for a year, the time came to assess whether they were working, as was required by the CSC ordinance. To fulfill that obligation, the SFPD commissioned a six-month study from a team of researchers at UC Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS).

The CITRIS researchers began poring over police and city documents, conducting interviews with residents, performing site visits at comparable cities, and analyzing more than three years’ worth of San Francisco crime data. They were aided in their research by City Administrator Ed Lee, who helped connect them with the various relevant city agencies.

The initial results of the study began to leak out in March of 2008, though the final report wouldn’t be issued until eight months later. Still, the preliminary report painted a very mixed picture of the cameras’ success.

“We find no evidence of an impact of the Community Safety Cameras on violent crime,” the final report concluded. “Analysis of specific violent crime rates reveals a decline in overall homicides in areas near the cameras but an increase in areas far from the cameras, suggestive of a displacement effect.”

While the cameras did not appear to deter violent activity, the study did conclude that they correlated to a reduction in some types of non-violent crimes.

“We find statistically significant and substantial declines in property crime within view of the Community Safety Cameras… [T]he entire impact of the Community Safety Cameras on property crime rates is occurring through an impact on larceny theft. Included in this broad crime category are pickpocketing, purse snatching, theft from buildings, and thefts from automobiles (though not automobile theft).”
The study also concluded that the cameras had occasionally proven useful in helping with criminal investigations. The poor image quality and choppy video often made identifying suspects or license plate numbers impossible, but the footage still had value.

“[D]espite poor image quality… often footage is helpful in establishing a sequence of events for a crime or placing witnesses at a scene.”
Regardless of these bright spots, the headline of the report was that the cameras did not deter violent crime, which had been the primary justification for their installation from the beginning. 

"Terribly ineffective and ridiculous"

News of the CITRIS report’s findings, preliminary though they were, quickly spread. Some, like the ACLU, used the report to advocate for shutting the camera program down entirely. Others reached another conclusion: that the cameras themselves weren’t robust enough, weren’t installed correctly, or needed real-time monitoring by police to be effective.

On June 26th, 2008, three months after the preliminary CITRIS report was released, the Board of Supervisors Budget Committee met to consider the mayor's proposed annual budget. Specifically at issue was more than $300,000 that had been earmarked for current and future cameras, as well as the separate gunfire-detecting ShotSpotter program.  

The financial climate at the time of the hearing was not in the cameras’ favor. The global financial crisis was already in full effect, and San Francisco itself had amassed a $576 million budget deficit. The controversial camera program would face an uphill battle to secure additional appropriations.

Some members of the Budget Committee, including Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, wanted the camera program defunded, mostly due to civil liberty concerns. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi wanted to await the final CITRIS report before passing judgement. And unsurprisingly, a representative from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice wanted the Committee to fund the program fully, as planned. 

“If you do take this money away, you will effectively kill the camera system,” Newsom rep Kevin Ryan told the committee. “You will kill the public safety camera program in San Francisco."

At the hearing, Mirkarimi suggested the program should be mended, not ended. He noted that similar cameras installed on public housing properties had also seen a number of problems, mostly due to human error, and implied that such problems could be rectified.

“We had housing authority cameras where the lenses were pointed up to the sky. There were three murders in one location where it occurred right in front of the housing authority camera, and literally it did not capture a single thing because of improper installation," Mirkarimi said.

It was a sentiment echoed by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who argued that if there were problems with the cameras themselves, the proper response was to fix them, not abandon them.

"So if we accept this motion, we'll eliminate the maintenance of Shotspotters and the existing cameras will have no maintenance,” Elsbernd posited in disbelief. “So we'll just have a bunch of cameras up there, and if they break down we'll have no money to fix them. Seems terribly ineffective and ridiculous."

And yet, that’s what ended up happening.

The committee voted to continue funding the maintenance of current cameras via a $200,000 reserve that had been set up the year before, but otherwise to cut off future funding for installations and maintenance. The Board of Supervisors approved the committee’s decision on July 22, 2008.

A program without a manager

The full CITRIS report was released in December of 2008 and presented to the city’s Police Commission at a public hearing the next month. The fact that the cameras were largely ineffective had been established months ago; now the researchers would explain why.

At the hearing, the Berkeley team outlined a number of flaws that it had identified with the camera program, including a lack of a dedicated project manager, and no documentation or training for users of the cameras. 

The researchers also determined that the cameras’ storage capacity was inadequate. Though the CSC ordinance had mandated that footage be kept for 30 days, only seven days’ worth of footage could actually be stored. And that footage was limited to 1-2 frames per second, not the 20 to 30 frames per second of standard video. The researchers had been told it would cost half a million dollars to bring the storage levels up to compliance with the original ordinance.

“There’s been a lot of, I think unfair, criticism levied at the equipment,” researcher Jennifer King told the commission. “San Francisco actually purchased overall good equipment. The cameras have great resolution, it’s just that they can’t record at a high enough frame rate [because they can’t] actually store the amount of data they need to get a quality feed out of them. So storage is actually underlying a lot of the problems that are feeding into other elements of the system.” 

Finally, the researchers recommended that the city designate a true project manager, and that that manager actually study how the cameras were being used to make informed decisions about their future.

"Our key recommendations are that you obtain stakeholder and user feedback so that whoever is designated as the project manager… will actually sit down and figure out what the users’ needs are," King said.



At the hearing, City Administrator Ed Lee declared that he was eager to see the CITRIS team's recommendations get implemented.

"It's been our role at the City Administrator's office to make sure this report got done... This is a very important juncture. It is very seldom that a program like this gets the very thorough review that it deserves, for the public and for us who administer this program... [We want to] make sure that things we can do immediately, as recommended by this report, get done as quickly as possible, and that those that take more money and time to do, that we put those on a very dedicated track to improve the system."
Some of the CITRIS recommendations were explored, briefly. 

But with the program effectively defunded by the Board of Supervisors, and the crime rate already coming down from its mid-decade highs, support for expanding or even reforming the camera program began to wane. And a number of high-level personnel changes in various city agencies in the months ahead would soon leave the program without a clear advocate.

In April of 2009, SFPD chief Heather Fong, who had been at the helm since the camera program’s inception, stepped down. In August, George Gascón took her place.


Flickr / Gavin Newsom

Gascón appeared before the Police Commission on September 30, 2009. There, he was asked about his assessment of the camera program. He acknowledged that it was flawed, and suggested that it could only improve with real-time monitoring — the kind being used in Chicago.

"One of the values of the camera system,” Gascón told the commission, “assuming that it's appropriately deployed and you have the right safeguards to protect people's rights, is that there has to be clear consequences when you commit criminal violations that are within the [view] of the camera. In order to do so you have to have real-time monitoring."

Gascón explained that he had been involved in a similar initiative in Los Angeles, with cameras monitoring the city’s MacArthur Park. With real-time monitoring 40 hours a week, the cameras had proven effective at dramatically reducing crime in and around the park. But Gascón wasn’t prepared to propose such monitoring in San Francisco.

“I'm not ready and the Department's not ready today to embark on a new camera initiative,” Gascón said. 

Gascón discussed the issue of real-time monitoring with Gavin Newsom as late as January 2010, but nothing came of it. From then on, interest in the issue, and in the camera program overall, seemed to evaporate. 

Newsom filed to run for Lieutenant Governor in February 2010. Within a year, he appointed Gascón to be San Francisco’s District Attorney. The Police Commission had a new president as well, and nearly all 10 supervisors that had approved the original Community Safety Camera ordinance were no longer on the Board. And Ed Lee left his role at City Administrator when he was appointed Mayor in January 2011. Virtually every official that had expressed some ownership or concern over the camera program had moved on to a new role, and presumably other priorities.

(We asked Ed Lee to comment on the current state of the camera program. We are awaiting a response.)

In recent years, the program has received sporadic funding for maintenance via federal grants, but there has been no additional oversight, and no significant change to the technology behind it. None of the CITRIS team's recommendations — increased storage, real-time monitoring, a dedicated program manager, and the like — were pursued.

Perhaps most disturbingly, though the 2006 CSC ordinance required that the SFPD submit annual reports to the Board of Supervisors on the cameras’ effectiveness — how often they are used, whether they are having an effect on crime, whether any charges have resulted from their use — the 2008 CITRIS report remains the only study that has ever been conducted. 

We asked representatives from both the SFPD and Board of Supervisors if any such annual reports exist; they do not. "I was only able to identify one report submitted regarding Community Safety Cameras, dating back to April of 2008," a clerk for the Board of Supervisors told us.

Changing times
 
In the years since the program was defunded, crime in San Francisco has receded from its alarming highs across a variety of categories:



And despite the lack of oversight or funding, the 71 community safety cameras throughout San Francisco still remain in use to this day.

The Department of Emergency Management tells Hoodline that in 2012, it received 184 requests for footage from community safety cameras citywide. That compares to 259 in 2013, and more than 200 so far in 2014. There are occasional anecdotes in which the cameras play a pivotal role — capturing a homicide, or helping to clear innocent suspects. But whether the cameras are effective overall remains a mystery. Despite the legal requirement, they are operating without review.

And because of the discontinued funding, there have been no technological upgrades since the cameras were originally installed as far back as 2005. They cannot be monitored in real-time, they do not adjust position in response to gunfire, and the footage is still as grainy and choppy as ever, despite huge advances in video technology over the last decade. 

“The cameras were put in place almost ten years ago and it is the same technology from that time,” SFPD Northern Station Captain Greg McEachern told us recently. “Obviously, camera pixels and quality have improved over the years with new camera systems but this is an original system. Thus, the quality is as good as it can be for a ten-year-old system.”

Vallie Brown, an aide to Supervisor London Breed, told us that despite the outdated technology, the city was unlikely to spend any funds to upgrade the cameras any time soon.

“Unfortunately the quality of the cameras [is] so poor that even when the the police have a case that warrants viewing the feed, it's hard to get a good ID. That's why the City is not spending the $25K each for more cameras. The police are getting better quality video and no civil liberties conflicts by accessing private cameras from businesses and residents.”
Yes, in the absence of an effective public camera network, San Francisco police have increasingly turned to private cameras to help solve crimes. 


Just this past August, police released footage (above) of a person of interest in the homicide of Bryan “Feather Lynn” Higgins at Church and Duboce. That footage was retrieved not from a CSC, but from a taxi’s dashboard camera. Last year, after Ernesto “Xe” Acosta was fatally shot in a drive-by near Hayes and Webster, police announced that the gunman had fled in a white Lexus ES350, which they were able to identify thanks to another taxicab dashboard camera. And in the 2010 homicide of Hermann Street resident Philip DiMartino, police reviewed footage taken from a surveillance camera at the U.S. Mint across the street.

To be clear, none of that private footage has yet to result in an arrest in any of those three specific cases. But in other instances, in San Francisco and beyond, the private cameras have helped investigators identify suspects and piece cases together.

In Chicago, for example, the city’s camera system has evolved dramatically since Gavin Newsom visited in 2005. The city now boasts a network of an estimated 25,000 cameras, both public and private. Some have facial recognition software or the ability to swivel 360 degrees, and they can be controlled remotely in real-time. It’s all monitored by the Chicago Police Department’s Crime Prevention and Information Center. The crime rate in Chicago has dropped precipitously in recent years across almost all categories. Although other factors were undoubtedly at play, at least one study directly correlated the decrease in crime to the use of the camera network.

Meanwhile, San Francisco's camera program remains in its 2005-era state, underfunded and unreviewed. Ironically, a system that was intentionally limited due to civil liberty concerns now lacks any oversight to ensure that those civil liberties are actually being protected.  And in the absence of a robust public network, police are increasingly turning to private video sources, which have no government-mandated oversight whatsoever.

*********

In the summer of 2014, as in 2005, the city saw another rash of violence — this time, a spate of shootings in Bayview-Hunters Point. 

In reaction, residents of the neighborhood gathered at City Hall in mid-July to demand a response to the surge in homicides.

"I want the city to put in surveillance cameras, quality surveillance cameras across the public housing, all the recreational facilities and public facilities," KTVU reported one community activist as saying.

Ed Lee, former City Administrator and current San Francisco Mayor, responded, "I'll definitely take on the demands of these residents and we'll be down there trying to implement as many as we can."

A new mayor, and new violence, but nine years later the story is largely the same. Whether the city will pursue a novel solution to surveillance, or will respond with more of the same approach, remains to be seen.

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