Put away the cameras

Pub date June 20, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The rate of violent crime in San Francisco, including murder, is climbing, and it’s way past unacceptable. Progressives aren’t generally known for their crime-fighting plans, but in this case the left flank of the Board of Supervisors, led by Ross Mirkarimi and Chris Daly, has offered a real, functional plan: an increase in community policing and additional funding for violence-prevention programs. However, Mayor Gavin Newsom and the cops are against that, and they helped knock it down on the June 6 ballot.
So what does the mayor want to do? He wants to put surveillance cameras — perhaps as many as 100 new surveillance cameras — all over the city, recording everything that happens in big swaths of public space, 24 hours a day.
The American Civil Liberties Union is urging the mayor to drop the plan. We agree.
For starters, there’s no evidence that cameras deter crime. Studies in England, where crime cameras are ubiquitous, show no decrease in criminal activity that can be linked to the cameras, and even studies in the United States suggest that criminals aren’t deterred by them. It’s possible cameras will help identify killers, particularly in neighborhoods where it’s almost impossible to find witnesses willing to talk — but it’s also possible (even likely) the bad guys will know exactly where the cameras are and either move somewhere else or wear masks.
And in exchange for this dubious benefit, San Franciscans will give up an immense amount of privacy.
We already live in a society where surveillance is an ugly fact of life. Credit card customers, grocery shoppers, cell phone and FasTrak users — almost all of us have our names and other details of our lives in electronic files, controlled by private firms and (as we’ve seen in the post–Sept. 11 era) easily accessible by government agencies.
The cameras offer such a huge potential for abuse. Will local or federal authorities use them to monitor political protests? Will they become a tracking device for people the feds consider a “threat”? Will they be used to monitor and suppress perfectly legal political activities and private associations?
No matter what the mayor and the San Francisco Police Department say, those cameras will be recording in public spaces, and those video files will exist somewhere, and even if they’re regularly erased (and given the SFPD’s record on following its own rules in other areas, we don’t trust that for a second), all it takes is a visit from the Department of Homeland Security to overrule all the safeguards. And anybody who thinks that won’t happen has been utterly out of touch with the state of the body politic in the past six years.
Another possibility the ACLU raises: Those videos could be considered public record in California — meaning stalkers, angry ex-spouses, and people planning violent crimes will have access to the daily movements of their potential victims.
The supervisors have, to their credit, tried to come up with rules to limit the potential abuses. But these sorts of technologies have a way of expanding, and law enforcement agencies have a way of avoiding oversight and scrutiny. There are much, much better ways to deter and fight violent crime. The best solution here is to simply cut the funding for the mayor’s cameras from next year’s budget. SFBG