Little-known surveillance helps nab thieves

In 2012, the Union Square Business Improvement District installed six crime cameras to monitor the area of Market and Powell streets. That was just the beginning.

Five years later, the nonprofit managing the district has created a widespread surveillance network linking hundreds of cameras monitoring the Union Square area, San Francisco’s commercial hub full of boutique hotels and big-name retailers like Macy’s and the Apple store.

The footage from the cameras flows into a “video control center” overseen by the Union Square business district where cameras can be adjusted and live-monitored, although they say they are not. The footage is stored and turned over to police or prosecutors upon request to make cases against criminals like shoplifters or muggers. 

More districts have since implemented a camera surveillance program or have plans underway to replicate one. The Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District and the East Cut Community Benefit District, which includes Rincon Hill and South Beach, are planning to establish security camera programs and see them as a means to combat the increasing incidents of thieves smashing car windows to grab what’s inside, and other crimes.

The Tenderloin Community Benefit District has already installed cameras in “hot spots for violent and drug-related crimes,” according to the district’s reported activities. So has the Central Market Community Benefit District.

The TLCBD has installed “20 multi-sensor cameras with three views each for a total of 60 different views across seven locations” and is looking to expand the program while also asking property owners to link their security cameras to the network.

Sixty percent of the 27-block Union Square Business Improvement District is being watched by the cameras. The stored footage is frequently requested by the San Francisco Police Department, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office and even insurance company investigators.

The Union Square BID reports that since its security camera program’s inception, there were 1,056 video requests, of which 513 came from the Police Department that contributed to 200 arrests.

It appears the installation of these cameras has escaped controversy, even though civil liberty groups often raise concerns about use of camera surveillance. That could be because these camera programs are established outside the realm of City Hall, where they would receive more scrutiny and public notice.

Community benefit districts or business improvement districts, of which there are 15 formed in San Francisco, are established through a vote by those with properties within the boundaries and they agree to pay an annual fee that funds services to augment what The City provides, such as increased street cleaning or graffiti abatement. These districts are overseen by nonprofits with a board of directors. The creation of the districts and their management plans require approval by the Board Supervisors.

The Union Square BID district uses Mission District-based company Applied Video Solutions, Inc. for the camera system, and was able to afford the camera program only after receiving more than $2 million in grant funding from an anonymous donor through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Karen Flood, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District, said the cameras each cost $4,000 to install and the district spends $250,000 annually to operate the program.

Flood said district continues to rely on grant funding, and she would like to expand the camera coverage to include all of the district, but doesn’t have the funding for that.

She doesn’t consider the cameras an infringement on someone’s right to privacy. “Everyone has a cell phone with a camera,” Flood said. “If we’re not capturing it, someone else is.”

The district also has protocols in place published on its website regarding the camera use, including a policy to “generally” only store footage for 30 days and then delete it on the 31st day.

Flood said it’s unclear if the cameras are a crime deterrent, but believes as more cases are brought against thieves using the footage, the word will get out to criminals that “Union Square is hot” and they would stay away.

If the cameras are monitored live, concerns over privacy and abuse of surveillance are more pronounced. 

Randall Scott, the Union Square BID services manager, said they do view the cameras live when adjusting them or for maintenance, but they are not “scanning for criminal activity.”

The district had planned to pilot live monitoring the cameras between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. from April to June “to assess the utility” of doing so, but Flood said they never did
after not coming up with the funding for it.

Troy Campbell, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf community benefit district, said that Applied Video Solutions is currently meeting with Fisherman’s Wharf property owners to assess their existing security camera equipment and determine what exterior cameras would be needed to replicate something like Union Square has.

He said the cameras could help crack down on shoplifting, scammers and auto-break ins. Thieves often target vehicles with out-of-state plates or rental cars when targeting cars to break into. Fisherman’s Wharf is a popular destination among out-of-towners.

Campbell said he expects to have the surveillance system up and running in time for the busy season, which begins around March.

Andrew Robinson, executive director of the East Cut Community Benefit District, said they are meeting with the same camera company next month to discuss what a camera surveillance program might look like for them. Robinson said the district currently doesn’t have the funds to build out a system, but suggested The City could step up and provide
funding in a public-private partnership.

Robinson said their district is more focused on residential crime concerns, such as home burglaries where bicycles are stolen from garages and auto-break ins.

Robinson said that installing cameras along First Street could make sense to capture people who may “smash and grab” and then “jump onto the bridge.” He also said live-monitoring is an option worth examining in instances where they are aware of incidents occurring in certain places at certain times.

He was doubtful the cameras would serve as a deterrent because cameras already exist and the crimes still occur, but that it would be more about “making a case” for prosecution.

“We’re looking at this being the most efficient and effective method for addressing” a problem that’s been occurring across The City, Robinson said.

Footage can help connect more incidents to specific individuals, helping to bring more significant charges. It’s suspected a small number of organized street gangs are responsible for a high number of auto break-ins.

Cameras connected through the districts are not the only surveillance resource being tapped into to make cases. District Attorney George Gascon has a program where those with their own security cameras can register them online with his office. Since Sept. 15, 2015, 288 people have registered their cameras through the website.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story attributed the final two quotes to the wrong person. The quotes should be attributed to Andrew Robinson, executive director of the East Cut Community Benefit District.

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