The Union Square Business Improvement District controls a network of surveillance cameras. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The Union Square Business Improvement District controls a network of surveillance cameras. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

ACLU accuses police of ‘spying’ on George Floyd protesters in new lawsuit

SFPD tapped into privately funded camera network amid looting, vandalism in Union Square

Civil liberties groups are suing San Francisco police for allegedly violating local law by tapping into a network of privately funded live surveillance cameras in Union Square to “spy” on protesters during civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd.

The ACLU of Northern California and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit on Wednesday asking a judge to find that the San Francisco Police Department broke the law when it sought and gained access to the camera network in late May and early June.

The lawsuit also seeks a court order preventing the SFPD from using a private camera network without prior approval from the Board of Supervisors. Last year, the board passed an ordinance requiring departments to seek approval before using, acquiring or borrowing new surveillance technologies.

“San Francisco police have a long and troubling history of targeting Black organizers going back to the 1960s,” Saira Hussain, an attorney with EFF, said in a statement. “This new surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters is exactly the kind of harm that the San Francisco supervisors were trying to prevent when they passed a critical surveillance technology ordinance last year. And still, with all eyes watching, SFPD brazenly decided to break the law.”

Attorneys argue that the surveillance could have a chilling effect on First Amendment activities.

“In a democracy, people should be able to freely protest without fearing that police are spying and lying in wait,” said ACLU attorney Matt Cagle in a statement. “Illegal, dragnet surveillance of protests is completely at odds with the First Amendment and should never be allowed.”

The lawsuit is based on a records request from the EFF that revealed in July the SFPD was granted permission by the Union Square Business Improvement District to monitor their camera network in real time during looting and vandalism in the area.

The San Francisco Examiner later obtained records showing the surveillance practice was not limited to the civil unrest. The department also secured live access to the Union Square BID camera network for the Fourth of July, Super Bowl and 2019 Pride Parade.

While the SFPD has maintained it did not violate the surveillance ordinance because the law makes exceptions for emergencies “involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person,” the lawsuit alleges there was no exigent circumstance during the civil unrest.

Police Chief Bill Scott has also said the department not actually view the camera feeds.

But attorneys argue police violated the ordinance just by gaining access to the network in the first place. They also dispute his assertion, citing an email where an officer thanked the Union Square BID for providing the cameras and called them “extremely helpful.”

A spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, which represents the SFPD in court, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit names three protesters who participated in the demonstrations as plaintiffs: Hope Williams, Nathan Sheard and Nestor Reyes.

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