A new round of controversial surveillance cameras that are expected to deter crime may be delayed in their installation after The City gave insufficient notification to neighborhood residents.
Under city administrative code, the 22 cameras, which were to be installed at seven high-crime intersections at a cost of $275,000 next month, must undergo a period of public comment, as well as approval by the San Francisco Police Commission.
The Nov. 15 police commission meeting that addressed the latest proposed cameras was announced by signs posted at the camera locations. But community
members say public comment was limited because signs announcing the meeting and the intended camera installations fell down, while others were improperly translated, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The 22 cameras are slated to join 33 already peering into 14 intersections across The City. The first of those went up in the Western Addition in summer 2005, as a means to combat The City’s escalating homicide rate. San Francisco ended 2005 with 96 homicides, its highest total in a decade.
The existing cameras went in before an August 2006 city code was passed regulating their installation. Now, The City requires at least four notification signs to be posted within a 100-foot radius of each proposed camera at least 20 days before the police commission’s hearing on the signs. It also requires that The City maintain the signs until the commission meeting.
In a letter dated Nov. 20, the ACLU brought attention to two inadequately notified sites. Community activists brought a third site to the attention of The City, criminal justice office director Alan Nance said. At 24th and Mission streets, too few signs were posted, and at least one fell, according to the ACLU. At 16th and Mission streets, signs that were translated into Spanish did not give a date or contact person for the commission meeting, Nance said. In the Tenderloin, signs were not translated into Vietnamese, Nance said.
“We want to err on the side of caution. We feel strongly about public input on the cameras,” Nance said of his office’s decision to renotify and rehear comment on the signs. Because of the notification problems at some sites, The City decided to rehear all of them, Nance said.
The ACLU contends the cameras violate citizens’ rights.
“It poses threats to privacy, free speech and civil liberties,” ACLU police policy director Mark Schlosberg said before the Nov. 15 meeting. He said the cameras might prevent people from participating in political demonstrations for fear they will be caught on tape, thus infringing on the right to free speech.
But proponents of the cameras, which have gone up at a cost of $450,000 so far, say they help prevent crime as well as capture evidence to prosecute it. “They have the ability of serving as a deterrent beyond the immediacy of capturing something on video,” said Alan Nance, acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. At least one arrest has been made using evidence from a camera at Alemany Boulevard and Ellsworth Street.
Not enough data exists to prove whether the cameras are an effective deterrent. Nance said part of the reason for their installation is to study the deterrent effects. But Schlosberg questioned the use of city funds for unproven technology. “The $275,000 does not appear in a vacuum,” he said.
The police commission is due to hear and vote on the cameras a second time on Jan. 17.