New surveillance effort aims to crack down on illegal dumping

’We want to make sure we catch people who are trashing our streets’

San Francisco is rolling out new surveillance equipment in an attempt to crack down on illegal dumping in the part of town that’s hardest hit by the problem.

Automated license plate readers are the newest strategy city officials are employing to catch scofflaw drivers who toss construction materials, old electronics and other waste on the side of the road in southeast neighborhoods like the Bayview.

“It’s just a major problem,” Supervisor Shamann Walton, whose district includes the Bayview, told The Examiner. “The cameras are going to be a tool to help us be able to address the illegal dumping, and hopefully it really does stop folks from dumping in our streets.”

Public Works is planning to mount the devices, known as an ALPRs, on privately owned buildings in illegal dumping hotspots around Walton’s district. The devices will capture images of passing license plates and store the data for about a month. If illegal dumping occurs, Public Works would then review the data to determine whether it can cite a driver for tossing debris in the area.

The agency is also considering pairing the devices with security cameras — both with the permission of property owners.

“People might think twice if they know they can be caught with a license plate reader or a surveillance camera,” said Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon. “We want people to think twice before they trash our neighborhoods.”

The license plate readers are only the latest effort by Public Works and Walton to curb illegal dumping in a district that officials say is significantly impacted by the issue, with its darkened industrial corridors and households that can’t afford to pay for garbage services.

Last year, Walton pushed legislation through the Board of Supervisors allowing Public Works to issue illegal dumping citations that carry fines of up to $1,000 a day for each violation. Public Works has also stepped up cleaning crews in the Bayview from two to four times a week in recent months.

Though The City has issued warnings, people continue to dump trash in the Bayview District. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Though The City has issued warnings, people continue to dump trash in the Bayview District. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

The program came to light because of a new law from Supervisor Aaron Peskin requiring city agencies to disclose surveillance technologies and draft policies governing their usage for approval by the Board of Supervisors. The legislation, passed in 2019 and aimed addressing privacy concerns, grabbed national headlines because it also made San Francisco the first city in the nation to ban the use of facial recognition technology.

The Board of Supervisors approved a policy for Public Works deploying the ALPRs on Tuesday, as well as a host of other rules for city agencies already using drones, license plate readers, security cameras and other surveillance equipment.

Recreation and Parks, for instance, has a license plate reader mounted at the Palace of Fine Arts to help police investigate assaults, car break-ins and other crimes in the area, officials said. The Police Department is allowed to use license plate readers to catch criminals and locate stolen or wanted vehicles.

The Public Works policy restricts the agency to using an OnSight Portable License Plate Reader solely for the purpose of combating illegal dumping and requires wiping data obtained for the device after 30 days. The policy allows the agency to share the data with police or prosecutors to build a criminal case.

The program has a $115,000 price tag, which includes a $99,000 one-time cost for hardware and $30,000 annual salary cost. The program is being paid for with funding secured by Walton during the budget process.

“The board approved this new technology based on assurances that the information will be appropriately treated, that it will only be used to serve its intended purpose, that only authorized personnel will have access to it, and that information will be deleted when it has run its course,” Peskin said. “This is an example of The City pioneering technologies in the public interest while safeguarding against unintended harms.”

License plate readers have been criticized for putting civil liberties at risk, particularly in the hands of law enforcement, depending on how long the collected data is stored and whether it’s shared with outside agencies — and ends up in the hands of federal immigration authorities.

A state audit, commissioned by state Sen. Scott Wiener, reviewed four law enforcement agencies in California and found in 2020 that some of the agencies shared their data with police across the nation and retained their data for more than five years.

License plate readers have also been known to make mistakes. In 2009, a Muni driver was wrongly pulled over at gunpoint after a police license plate reader misidentified her car as a stolen vehicle. San Francisco later settled a lawsuit over the error for $495,000.

Oakland-based privacy advocate Brian Hofer said his concerns in the case of Public Works using the device to combat illegal dumping are largely mitigated by the policy requiring a short data retention period. Still, Hofer said the usage stood out to him from the others as being a “big waste of money.”

Garbage lined an abandoned stretch of train tracks along Carroll Avenue earlier this week. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Garbage lined an abandoned stretch of train tracks along Carroll Avenue earlier this week. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

“Oakland has an insane problem with illegal dumping,” said Hofer. “We’ve tried regular cameras, we’ve tried license plate readers. There is no deterrent effect at all. There has been almost no collection because you can’t usually… prove who the driver was.”

Hofer chairs the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission and heads a group called Secure Justice. He helped author five of the seven laws from jurisdictions in California, including San Francisco, that require disclosure of surveillance technology.

Supervisor Walton said the Public Works surveillance program shows why The City needed to implement Peskin’s new law.

“We want to make sure that we are actually using the tools to catch people who are trashing our streets,” Walton said. “But the last thing we want to do of course is to violate people’s civil rights. That’s why we require departments to put a plan in place.”

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