Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Community & Society
Published on June 08, 2021
Castro CBD votes to end private security camera proposal funded by tech entrepreneurPhoto: Steven Bracco/Hoodline

On Monday, the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District (Castro CBD) voted to scuttle its proposal to install a private network of 125 security cameras.

The vote effectively ended nine months of heated discussion and debate after Hoodline broke the news of the proposal back in September. The security camera network would have been funded by a $695,000 grant by tech entrepreneur Chris Larsen, and would have been managed along the lines of similar networks in other city retail districts.

During the special meeting of the Castro CBD, board members Justine Shoemaker, Alan Lau, Jim Laufenberg, Crispin Hollings, Daniel Bergerac, Helen McClure, Desmond Morgan, and Pat Sahagun voted to end further discussion of the camera proposal. Board members Angel Davis and Michael Langley were absent.

Larsen, who lives in Russian Hill, is the co-founder of cryptocurrency company Ripple and mortgage lender E-Loans. Larsen has been gifting security cameras to community benefit districts in the city since 2012, and his network now spans 1,000 cameras. The Castro CBD is the first neighborhood group to reject Larsen's funding.

In rejecting the proposal, Castro CBD board members raised concerns over the long-term budget impacts the program would have once the grant funding runs out.

Lau presented a five-year budget proposal that incorporated the grant funding along with three payment options from property and business owners to pay for the program. Business and property owners would have been charged a one-time upfront fee of $5,467 or $4,309. Lau also proposed charging an annual fee of $862.

SF Patrol Special Police Officer Cody Clements (center) with two Safety Ambassadors. | Photo: Castro CBD


Several board members were hesitant to saddle already financially burdened businesses with another cost.

"I think we should kill the program tonight," said Hollings. "There's not a lot of effectiveness of cameras."

"Property owners' costs are high enough already," added McClure.

"I want to thank Crispin, Daniel, and Justine for their comments in particular, particularly about the long-term budget impacts, and encourage the Board to put this proposal to rest," said Lee Hepner, Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club member.

Instead, Lau called on the Castro CBD to focus on its Public Safety Initiative which includes Castro Cares, Public Safety Ambassadors, Downtown Streets Team, and SF Patrol Special Police.

Results from the Castro CBD security camera survey. | Image: Steven Bracco/Hoodline


Bergerac asked why Larsen continued to not be present at Castro CBD meetings and urged the group to vote no.

Data consultant Greg Carey of Castro Community on Patrol presented results from the security camera survey and its contentious April town hall meeting survey.

Survey question topics included demographic information, experience with crime and reporting incidents to police, privacy concerns, and overall impression of security cameras.

According to Carey, 774 people responded to the multi-question survey. An additional 130 responses were incomplete and were not included in the results. According to the results, 28.8% of respondents opposed the security cameras while 61.6% supported them. An additional 9.7% supported cameras being owned independently by businesses.

Asked whether the benefits of the cameras outweigh the risks, 35.7% disagreed while 45.3% supported the proposal.

"There was a fair amount of people in favor of the program," said Shoemaker. "I still think the results were not compelling [enough] to move forward." Shoemaker said she would have anticipated 70-80% of respondents in favor of the security cameras in order to support the program.

Proposed budget for Castro CBD security cameras. | Image: Steven Bracco/Hoodline


Last month, a coalition of neighborhood groups including the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club (Milk Club), Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club (Alice), and Castro LGBTQ Cultural District (CQCD) published an op-ed in the SF Examiner in opposition to the security camera proposal. [Full disclosure: Steven Bracco, Hoodline's Castro reporter, is a board member of the CQCD.]

Many attendees disapproved of the legitimacy of the survey's results. "This analysis is disturbingly skewed," said meeting attendee Nash.

"Why are you combining the neutral with the negative," asked attendee Jason Wyman about how the results were calculated.

In response, Castro CBD executive director Andrea Aiello said, "The neutral value is added to whichever of the subtotals are the highest.”

Meeting attendees questioned some of the survey results. Image: Steven Bracco/Hoodline


"This is deeply flawed methodology," said Tracy Rosenberg of United to Save the Mission. "I am particularly concerned that 18% of surveys were 'thrown out' or not counted. That is almost one in five."

Carey's presentation also referred to the security cameras as 'safety cameras' which many attendees called out for being misleading.

"Calling them safety cameras implies they’ll provide safety," said Alice co-chair Gary McCoy. "They aren’t providing safety, they’re providing surveillance."

"Calling them safety cameras does nothing to create a safer environment," added CQCD board member César Cadabes.

Masood Saereie (left), Supervisor Rafael Mandelman (center), and SFDCMA President Maryo Mogannam (right). | Photo: Chloe Jackman Photography/SFDCMA


Masood Samereie, the president of Castro Merchants, said that the organization did not support the proposal as currently written. "We believe it should not be centralized and it should not be on the cloud or online," said Samereie.

Instead, Samereie plans on reaching out to Larsen to discuss installing cameras on businesses independently of a private security camera network. Hoodline reached out to Samereie for clarification but did not receive a response.

In March the Castro Merchants accepted a $50,000 grant from Chris Larsen's Avenue Greenlight program.

Data consultant Greg Carey discusses survey results. | Image: Steven Bracco/Hoodline


Meeting attendee Susan called on the Castro CBD to reject the proposal on the basis that this decision was not in the purview of the Castro CBD. "This is not an appropriate venue to discuss this," she said. "It should go through the city and a place where we can vote."

"Whether or not the public supports the proposal is not the most important question, but rather can this technology achieve the intended goal," said Brian Hofer, executive director of Oakland's Secure Justice. "As a subject matter expert that has extensively researched the use of cameras, I can confirm that these types of cameras have little-to-no statistically significant deterrent effect against the types of crimes identified here."

"You likely saw the Chronicle’s article last month about 17 Walgreens locations closing over the last few years, along with a number of CVS stores," added Hofer. "Each of those facilities had dozens of cameras, and most had security guards."

"The lack of results speak for themselves," said Hofer.

As the meeting came to a close, Milk Club's Hepner called on all the community groups to come together to find a solution to the Castro's crime and safety concerns.

“I came to this hearing hoping for reconciliation and a path to collaboration," said Hepner. "We’ve all got an obligation to work together, and the CBD has an opportunity tonight to invite community groups who have been raising concerns about these surveillance cameras to actually work together on our shared goals."

He added, "Putting faith in our neighborhoods and communities to rebuild includes not selling out to opportunistic outside benefactors who may not have our best interests in mind."