Critics of anti-crime cameras led by knee-jerk ideology

Rarely has there been a clearer picture of San Francisco’s maddening clash of ideology and reality than in the decision to place surveillance cameras in high-crime neighborhoods.

Mayor Gavin Newsom announced last week that The City will install another 50 cameras in public housing projects around San Francisco as part of the attempt to reduce the surge in violence that recently saw five people killed on one day. The cameras have proved successful in helping police solve some crimes, including the apprehension of a man who shot a 13-year-old girl in the Western Addition earlier this year.

But as with every policy decision in San Francisco, no good deed can go unpunished. Several public officials have decried the use of the security devices as an infringement on civil liberties — no matter how many criminals they help catch. And those people with thick rap sheets aren’t happy about them either.

I have always been against more government interference in personal privacy, but that is hardly a big issue here. Nor is the use of surveillance cameras in general. They are not being installed in living rooms — just in the places where a lot of innocent people are terrorized.

San Francisco, reputedly one of the nation’s most technologically advanced towns, lags well behind big cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in using the electronic eyes as a crime deterrent. Those cities have had success in reducing crime — which is why they have put cameras in hot spots.

Some San Francisco officials have their knickers in a twist over a desire to install less than 100.

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick called the installation of surveillance cameras a “case of mistaken strategy.” Earlier he had tried to kill funding for 22 additional cameras, citing crimes against civil liberties.

“The mayor says he’s doing 50 other [things] to fight crime and I think he should focus on the other 49,” McGoldrick said.

And while I can applaud his unshakeable ideological stance, it flies in the face of reason. Surveillance cameras are so ubiquitous in our daily lives, we’ve come to take them for granted. There is hardly a place where anyone can go today where they aren’t electronically monitored — department stores, supermarkets, ATMs, elevators. In a post-9/11 world, is anyone really objecting that cameras have become a security staple on transportation lines, including BART and Muni?

As Newsom told me last week: “If they’re good enough for public transit lines, they’re good enough for public housing.”

Newsom got the idea for surveillance cameras about two years ago on a visit to Chicago and said he wrestled with the idea of using them here. But he said he was ultimately swayed by the residents in The City’s most violent neighborhoods who were clamoring for anything that might help them.

I have yet to hear from someone who lives in one of San Francisco’s high-crime areas who didn’t support surveillance cameras. In fact, they want more cameras, more police, more arrests and more peace.

“I’m not going to wait weeks or months when the community is crying out for these,” Newsom said. “Initially I dragged my feet on this because I was a little uneasy. But you can’t deal in the ideological world on violent crime. If witnesses aren’t coming forward, then we’ve got to create a deterrence.”

Cameras have also been effective at spotlighting quality-of-life crimes that blight The City’s landscape. Just a few weeks ago, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit against one of San Francisco’s busiest illegal dumpers. Herrera said city cameras caught Wilfredo Amaya dumping used carpets 16 times over a period of five months in the Bayview, an act that would raise the ire of environmentally conscious libertarians.

Of course the cameras aren’t going to stop anyone from committing a crime — they’re just helpful in recording them. Police say many of the shooting homicides that have occurred this year happened when patrol cars were so close that the officers actually heard the gunfire. But if the cameras can capture images of the actual attacks, they can be a welcome addition to The City’s crime-fighting arsenal.

This year there have been 14 homicides, 180 aggravated assaults and more than 400 burglaries reported at San Francisco’s public housing sites, which seems to provide solid evidence of why residents are asking for any help they can get. And if residents of the housing sites object to the placement of the cameras, they can ask for them to be removed.

No such requests have been received to date. That may be the most telling argument of all.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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