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Brooke Jenkins backs police plan to expand live surveillance in San Francisco: ‘Our tone and approach matter’

S.F. District Attorney Brooke Jenkins speaking to the audience after being sworn in on Friday, July 8, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. Paul Kuroda for The Standard

In her first substantive policy position as San Francisco’s top cop, newly appointed District Attorney Brooke Jenkins came out in support of a proposal to expand the use of live camera surveillance by police.

Jenkins urged the Board of Supervisors in a letter Monday to approve a proposed policy from Mayor London Breed, who appointed her. The proposal would broaden the range of circumstances in which San Francisco police are allowed to tap into privately owned camera feeds in real time.

Jenkins called the proposal a “responsible tool” for improving public safety.

“I support this policy because not only will it serve a practical purpose of helping us to deter crime and hold those who commit crimes in our city accountable, but will also send a message to those scheming to prey on our city that there will be consequences for their actions,” Jenkins wrote. “Our tone and approach matters.”

Breed wants to give police permission to live-monitor cameras while investigating crimes as they happen—including misdemeanors. Police say the surveillance would help fight drug dealing, gun violence and retail thefts.

But civil liberties groups—including the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation—are skeptical that the proposal would improve public safety, and instead argue that the policy would only impede privacy.

Breed introduced an ordinance to approve the police policy last month in response to the high-profile retail thefts that were caught on camera in Union Square last November. She initially sought to expand police surveillance by placing a measure on the ballot, before deciding to advance her proposal through the legislative process.

Jenkins was appointed last week to succeed former District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Jenkins first rose to prominence late last year after quitting her job as an assistant district attorney to lead the successful recall campaign against Boudin. 

In her first public speeches as district attorney last week, Jenkins positioned herself as a prosecutor who would make tackling drug dealing her first priority. She continued to focus on drug dealing in her letter.

“This policy can help address the existence of open-air drug markets fueling the sale of the deadly drug fentanyl,” she wrote. “Drug dealers are destroying people’s lives and wreaking havoc on neighborhoods like the Tenderloin.”

Jenkins also said the proposal would help police respond to “mass organized retail theft” like the Union Square thefts. She said the live-surveillance access would help police address “targeted neighborhood efforts” in Chinatown—but she didn’t specify how.

Currently, local law prohibits police and other city agencies from acquiring new surveillance technologies without approval from the Board of Supervisors.

But the surveillance ordinance, approved by the board in 2019, includes an exception that allows police to temporarily live-monitor cameras in emergencies when someone might die or get seriously hurt. 

The ordinance also doesn’t prohibit cops from using cameras to watch protests unfold in downtown.

While civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit alleging that police flouted the ordinance by accessing a network of privately owned cameras in Union Square to monitor 2020 George Floyd protests, a San Francisco Superior Court judge disagreed.

Surveillance cameras in Union Square in May 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The judge found that police could legally access the network because the department previously used the cameras to monitor the 2019 Pride Parade before the ordinance went into effect.

While the decision is under appeal, police are now essentially asking the Board of Supervisors to cement that ruling into local law—as well as expand permission for even more uses.

The department is seeking approval to temporarily live-monitor cameras during “significant events.” Those events are defined as large or high-profile events where there is a potential for “terrorist or criminal attacks” and that require “street closures, barricades and crowd management.”

Police are also trying to expand their surveillance abilities by being allowed to temporarily live-monitor cameras during “investigations relating to active misdemeanor and felony violations,” according to the proposed policy.

A Board of Supervisors committee heard the proposal Monday, but delayed a vote on it until next week to make amendments.

Police Chief Bill Scott told the committee he wanted to use live surveillance to fight drug dealing and gun violence. 

He said the proposal would allow his officers to live-monitor drug dealing and usage around Civic Center.

“Being able to see enclaves of where people are doing that type of activity is very helpful in terms of us being able to address it,” Scott said.

The chief said live-monitoring cameras would also help his department prevent retaliatory shootings by allowing officers to keep an eye on problem corners if they have information that certain people might be there.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who authored the 2019 surveillance ordinance, and Supervisor Connie Chan said it was important for the policy to strike a balance between public safety and privacy.

While Peskin initially said the proposal did not expand police powers, he later expressed concerns about the policy allowing the department to temporarily live-monitor cameras during investigations into “active misdemeanors.”

“I’m worried that when you say ‘active misdemeanors’ means you can turn on cameras pretty much anywhere, you can turn them on all the time,” Peskin said. “That might go past the balance, the sweet spot, that we are looking for.”

The Union Square Business Improvement District, which gave police live access to its camera network after a day of protests over Floyd’s killing was followed by looting in the commercial area, is supporting the proposal.

The commercial area is still “reeling” from the last round of retail thefts that struck Louis Vuitton and other high-end stores in November, according to Marisa Rodriguez, who heads the business improvement district.

“We have since secured the district with the help of the mayor and the police department,” said Rodriguez, a former prosecutor. “But we don’t know the next time that people will strike—and this will help us prevent that.”

The proposal is being opposed by a coalition of organizations including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation—the same civil liberties groups that sued the city over police surveillance.

In a joint letter to the supervisors, the coalition argued that the proposal would allow police to “engage in unprecedented live surveillance of San Francisco residents and visitors engaged in everyday activities.”

“The proposal dramatically lowers the standard needed for live surveillance,” the groups wrote, “by permitting SFPD to tap into private cameras in response to any violation of criminal law, including misdemeanors.”

The committee is expected to vote on the proposal next Monday.