Castro mulls controversial plan to install surveillance camera network

Business group seeks to combat crime with $695K donation from tech investor

A Castro community group with funding from a billionaire tech investor is facing pushback for seeking to install a network of crime-fighting surveillance cameras in the historically LGBTQ neighborhood.

The Castro Upper Market Community Benefit District, a public-private partnership of local business and property owners, is considering installing the camera network with a $695,000 donation from Chris Larsen, the co-founder of tech company Ripple and a major political donor in San Francisco.

The executive director of the group, Andrea Aiello, argues that the cameras would help solve and prevent crimes by making it easier for police to obtain video footage. At a community meeting late Tuesday, she said the area already has 224 cameras, but the devices are owned and operated by individuals.

“It’s important for effective and efficient crime prevention because law enforcement only has to go to one place to get the video footage,” Aiello said. She said the cameras would be placed on private property, with some positioned at major intersections along upper Market Street that are hot spots for crime.

But the proposal is raising privacy concerns for members of a community that has faced discrimination and violence by police in the past. Organizations including the Harvey Milk and Alice B. Toklas LQBTQ democratic clubs and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District are opposed.

Stephen Torres, a member of the cultural district’s advisory board, said in an interview Wednesday there is a concern about people who may not openly share their LGBTQ identity visiting the Castro from other cities or countries and being recorded unknowingly. He also said there is a history of the LGBTQ community “being targeted by law enforcement from time to time.”

“That isn’t to say anything about the current leadership of San Francisco at present, it is just a reality and historical fact that this has happened,” Torres said. “So allowing access to this kind of information to any kind of law enforcement, especially given our community’s history, I think would give a lot of people pause.”

Larsen is the same donor who has helped fund surveillance networks run by quasi-public groups in other neighborhoods including the Tenderloin and Union Square. One of those networks came under scrutiny last summer when the Union Square Business Improvement District allowed police to access the cameras in real time to monitor protests and looting following the police killing of George Floyd.

The live access issue spawned a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation last October alleging that police violated a city ordinance barring them from using new surveillance technologies without prior approval from the Board of Supervisors. The concern is that the surveillance could make protesters less likely to exercise their First Amendment rights and take to the streets.

(Police have said they did not watch the footage and only requested live access for the Floyd protests under an emergency exemption to the ordinance, but the San Francisco Examiner previously reported that the department also gained live access on other occasions including the 2019 Pride Parade).

At the community meeting Tuesday night, Aiello said the Castro CBD is considering policy guidelines that would prevent law enforcement from accessing its cameras in real time. The footage would also be stored for no longer than 30 days and could only be accessed for evidentiary purposes if a crime is reported.

“We have learned so much about how important privacy is and how to develop controls and procedures that really ensure for privacy and don’t put that at risk,” Aiello said.

But in an interview Wednesday, EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia questioned whether the policy could truly limit police access.

“First Amendment protected activities can easily come under police surveillance for no other reason than they have the ability to do so,” Guariglia said. “San Francisco already has a law on the books that prevented that type of behavior as well and that still didn’t stop them.”

Guariglia said he would be “more comfortable” with the cameras going up if police needed a warrant to access the footage each time that included guidelines for how the video could be used. He also questioned the premise that the new network would stop crimes, when the area is already “blanketed in cameras.”

“If that isn’t preventing crime, what makes them think more cameras will?” Guariglia said. “I don’t think that there is a lot of evidence that somebody desperate enough to commit a crime is going to see a camera and stop.”

Proponents of the cameras say the networks can make it easier for prosecutors to obtain convictions by plainly showing the facts of a case and helping to establish where a video came from. Instead of having to call a reluctant resident or merchant to testify in a case about the video footage they recorded, prosecutors could call an administrator in charge of the cameras for the community benefit district to the stand.

Tom Ostly, a former assistant district attorney, said the cameras can not only help convict but acquit.

“The cameras aren’t political, they don’t have a bias, they just show what happened,” Ostly said at the meeting. “As a prosecutor, one of the nightmare scenarios is actually prosecuting somebody that didn’t do it. Video greatly reduces the chance of that happening.”

Randall Scott, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, said his group runs more than 40 cameras that have been useful for solving crimes and vehicle collisions. He said his cameras are used under “tremendous oversight” and operate under a less-restrictive policy than the one proposed.

“These systems have more scrutiny than anything else and they don’t have any microphones and they only look at public space,” Scott said at the meeting. “It doesn’t care who you are, what you’re wearing, what type of vehicle you drive. Cameras are nothing but passive, there is no live monitoring. That’s our use.”

The Japantown Community Benefit District also has about 120 cameras that officials say helped respond to rampant car break-ins before the pandemic.

The Castro CBD’s Board of Directors has not voted on whether to accept the donation from Larsen to install the cameras. The Bay Area Reporter previously reported that the vote was delayed over opposition to the proposal. The board is expected to take up the issue again next month.

In a statement, Larsen said the camera programs are both “driven and maintained” by the community.

“In many ways, tech has contributed to the disparity and problems that we see in San Francisco today,” Larsen said. “As members of the community, I think it’s our job to help solve them by reinvesting in The City, making it safe and supporting our small businesses.”

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