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San Francisco crime cameras approved
despite privacy concerns

Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Brent Begin, Bay City News Service

January 18, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) - The San Francisco Police Commission voted unanimously to approve the placement of 25 security cameras throughout the city Wednesday night despite an outpouring of public sentiment that surveillance would violate privacy rights.

The approval, which carried with it a number of amendments and stipulations, came after nearly five hours of comment from a vivid cross section of residents from the city's Mission, Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods.

And though the more than 50 speakers who shared their thoughts with the commission gave varying reasons for their thoughts, the sentiments came down to only two passionate positions: no or yes to the installation of surveillance equipment in high crime areas.

"Government invasion is already at an all-time high and this technology can be abused," said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. "Public safety is of the utmost importance, but we can do better than this."

Pan echoed the sentiments of several opponents that choosing "high crime areas" such as the intersection of 16th and Mission streets would unfairly target poor and minority residents of the city.

"We're against the cameras because the benefits are not proven, and the costs, historically, have been borne by minority communities," he added.

Allen Nance, who recently handed in his resignation as director of the mayor's office of criminal justice, reiterated a presentation that he made in November in support of the cameras.

He said the cameras would not be a panacea to all of the city's crime woes, but it would present an invaluable tool for officers trying to solve cases.

Director of Criminal Justice Allen Nance

Several residents agreed, including a group of residents who wore name badges labeled in black marker with the phrases, "stop crime" and "save lives."

One of those residents, T.J. Walkup, expressed concern that either he or is girlfriend could very easily be assaulted as they walk home in the early hours of the morning.

"I would want someone to be a witness," Walkup told the commission. "I think you need to give people a fighting chance."

But lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have been fighting the installation of the cameras for years, saying they would not only infringe on individual privacy but chill the right of people to conduct political demonstrations.

The commissioners specifically addressed those concerns when they tacked on a number of amendments to their vote. One stipulation would require the Police Department to turn the cameras off whenever a permitted demonstration was planned at one of the camera sites.

Commissioner Joe Veronese said that stipulation would not amount to much considering the Police Department videotapes demonstrations on a regular basis. Veronese also expressed concern that under a court order, video files could be turned over to any agency such as the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We are a sanctuary for immigrants," he said. "There is nothing to protect people living here who are immigrants."

Commissioner Joe Alioto-Veronese

The commissioners added on an extra provision to insure that the video data is destroyed after 14 days and that it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Also, the commission mandated that a comprehensive report be conducted after a year of the camera program, with the ability to discontinue the program if it doesn't deter crime.

Nance did not provide comprehensive numbers for the commission tonight, but he did say there have not been a number of arrests due to the 33 cameras that have already been installed for over a year.

"I am aware of one incident that has resulted in an arrest," Nance said.

Commissioner Theresa Sparks provided the most support for the camera program.

"I drove a cab for three years in San Francisco and when they installed cameras in the front of cabs, I was thrilled," Sparks said. "The same thing with Muni... I think many people are pleased with having cameras on busses. I've said it before; I'll go on record tonight. I'm very supportive of these cameras."

Police Commissioner Teresa Sparks (left)

Two politicians who have weighed in on the debate were unable to attend Wednesday night's meeting, but both issued statements before the meeting began.

"I applaud the commission's willingness to move forward on this vital public safety initiative," Mayor Gavin Newsom said. "I am pleased with the vigorous public discourse and the clear, strong community support to expand our safety camera program. The quality of life and safety of residents in our most troubled neighborhoods is and remains our highest priority."

Supervisor Chris Daly, who represents the Tenderloin, Mission and South of Market neighborhoods disagreed with the placement of cameras in his district.

"Based on reports from the ACLU, we are concerned that the cameras will only give people a semblance of safety and will in fact move crime a half block away rather than deter it outright," wrote Daly's office in a letter to the commission.

Supervisor Chris Daly

"We are also concerned about the chilling effect the cameras will have on everyday people congregating in the public spaces and around the BART plazas. This is especially problematic for many Latino residents for whom public plazas are a key component to social life."

Daly and Newsom will both have the opportunity to comment on the commission's amendments when the recommendation comes to their desks. At Wednesday night's meeting, Commissioner Joe Marshall did not attend and Commissioner Yvonne Lee left early to catch a flight.

Copyright © 2007 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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