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Politics & Policy

Breed backs more cops, more surveillance as public safety concerns swamp City Hall

Mayor London N. Breed announced details on her plan to address public safety in San Francisco by improving and clarifying local laws governing the use of cameras during serious public safety events and in neighborhoods facing public safety challenges. | Art by Katherine Manlapaz

Mayor London Breed dove head first into some of the biggest debates over policing Tuesday when she seized on the perception that San Francisco is becoming less safe to call for more police and more police surveillance.

During a press conference at City Hall, the mayor announced a series of crime-fighting initiatives that included more overtime funding for police to crack down on drug dealing in the Tenderloin and giving police live access to public security cameras during emergencies.

While Breed acknowledged that her proposals would make people uncomfortable, the mayor said that she didn’t care. Spurred by viral videos of thieves breaking into cars and ransacking stores in Union Square, Breed said it was time to turn the tide on a public safety problem that has persisted in San Francisco for years and has only gotten worse.

“I know that San Francisco is a compassionate city,” said Breed, flanked by Police Chief Bill Scott and other city officials. “But we are not a city where anything goes. Our compassion should not be mistaken for weakness or indifference.”

The mayor came forward with her proposals as San Francisco and its viral videos continue to be paraded around conservative media as a national laughing stock and an example of the pitfalls of liberalism. While the concerns of an ever-increasing threat to public safety are largely not borne out by police data, there is a growing sense that crime is out of control in the city. And much of the blame is being pinned on progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who faces a recall election next year.

Breed’s proposal to increase police funding stands in contrast to the demands of protesters who just a year ago called for slashing police budgets in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. While the mayor supported calls to redirect police funding to the Black community, she now wants more police on the street.

Her proposal to change local law so that police can monitor surveillance cameras live in real time is also being viewed with scrutiny in light of an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU. The lawsuit alleges that police violated a law preventing police from using new surveillance technologies when they gained live access to Union Square cameras to monitor looting during the summer 2020 protests.

Brian Hofer, an Oakland-based privacy advocate who helped co-author the law, compared the response by Breed on Tuesday to Japanese Americans being put in internment camps after Pearl Harbor and the Patriot Act’s enactment after 9/11.

“We have these knee-jerk reactions in times of crisis and it ends up destroying your civil liberties,” said Hofer, the executive director of Secure Justice. “It always goes the wrong way toward a greater surveillance state, toward less due process, less civil liberties.”

John Hamasaki, a criminal defense attorney and member of San Francisco’s Police Commission, called the proposals a “backlash to Black Lives Matter” and an example of the “police union seizing power.” He said he does not support officers gaining live access to cameras and questioned the efficacy of putting more police on the street.

“We have been arresting and incarcerating dealers both at the state and the federal level,” he said. “And it hasn’t changed the circumstances on the ground in the Tenderloin.”

In addition to holding a press conference, Breed offered more details about her proposals in a Medium post.

She plans to introduce a budget supplement in January to help the Police Department pay for overtime through the rest of the fiscal year. It’s part of a larger, multi-agency plan to address problems in the Tenderloin that includes not only a police response but social workers and clinicians offering wrap-around services to those in need.

As for the surveillance proposal, Breed said it was “ridiculous” that police could not watch live feeds from surveillance cameras in Union Square when dozens of thieves ransacked stores last month in Union Square. She was referencing the 2019 ordinance from Supervisor Aaron Peskin at the center of the lawsuit from the EFF and ACLU.

“There is a balance to be had,” Breed told reporters. “But right now if our officers cannot use cameras during a mass looting event, then that policy is out of balance.”

But Hofer, who co-authored the legislation, accused Breed of misleading the public with her statements about the ordinance. Hofer said that under current law, police can already use live surveillance if there is an imminent threat to life or serious injury, so long as they later notify the Board of Supervisors.

Also, police could be allowed to live monitor surveillance cameras if they submit a plan for its use to the Board of Supervisors for approval. However, Hofer said the department has not produced any such proposals.

In a statement, Supervisor Peskin agreed.

“The Mayor must be misinformed or hasn’t bothered reading the law that she’s trying to amend,” Peskin said.