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Live video feeds helped arrest San Francisco drug dealers, killers, thieves, police say

Officers stand around a shooting scene in the Tenderloin.
A deadly shooting in the Tenderloin on July 21 was among the cases in which police say they used live monitoring to help make an arrest. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

San Francisco police spent more than 250 hours last year watching live security camera feeds around the city to monitor major events and help bust suspects in crimes ranging from pickpocketing to murder. 

In what was intended to be a test run for expanded police surveillance in San Francisco, officers carried out 46 live-monitoring operations between April and the end of September that netted 65 arrests—largely for drug dealing—according to new reports compiled by the San Francisco Police Department. 

While police declined to say exactly how live monitoring aided their investigations, the reports show that two of the arrests made during the operations were in connection with a pair of deadly shootings in the Tenderloin.

Under a 15-month pilot program approved by the Board of Supervisors in late 2022, police can ask business groups and others who own or operate public-facing cameras for permission to watch their video feeds under certain circumstances, including to investigate crimes and redeploy officers during mass events. Previously, they mostly asked for camera footage of past crimes.

The program was controversial because of the potential for civil liberties abuses. Advocates worried that police could use the large networks of privately owned security cameras popping up downtown to track people as they go about their daily lives to religious centers or protests, for example.

Asked about the impacts of live monitoring, Police Chief Bill Scott said that the cameras have been "valuable tools for the SFPD to identify and arrest people who commit crimes in our city."

"Our data proves that using cameras operated by businesses and individuals greatly assists our officers in arresting suspects in some of San Francisco’s most pernicious crimes," Scott told The Standard in a statement.

Scott said the cameras have helped intensify efforts to arrest drug dealers and disrupt the drug trade, and they have aided in arresting murder suspects.

Cameras overlook pedestrians walking on the street in the Inner Sunset.
Police Chief Bill Scott said cameras operated by third parties have helped his officers make arrests in homicides and drug dealing cases. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Although the pilot continued after September, SFPD has not released details on the number of hours watched or number of related arrests made after that. The reports released so far show officers watched at least 261 hours of feeds in the first 5½ months of the program.

Monitoring at Outside Lands Music Fest

Among the times that police used live monitoring last year was during the weekend of the Outside Lands music festival, according to internal police documents obtained by The Standard.

The surveillance, which involved an officer watching footage of the west end of Golden Gate Park for 39 hours, resulted in five arrests for offenses such as pickpocketing, possession of a stolen cellphone and violating the local Park Code, according to the documents as well as the reports compiled by SFPD.

“The use of this equipment is imperative to the success and safety of those attending and working this event,” a police captain wrote as justification for approving the live monitoring. “Surveillance equipment will be used to monitor and thwart pre-active attacker subjects, to redeploy counter assault teams accurately and to minimize potential harm to the community.”

A woman holds her cellphone at the Outside Lands Music Festival in Golden Gate Park.
San Francisco police watched live security camera footage at Golden Gate Park during the weekend of Outside Lands, records show. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Police also used live monitoring while investigating the killings of Justin Smith, 31, and James Allen, 34, who were gunned down in the Tenderloin.

On the night of Sept. 16, Allen collapsed from a gunshot wound in front of an SFPD patrol car that was responding to a shooting on Jones Street just north of Market Street, according to authorities.

Three days after the shooting, internal documents show an officer involved in the case got permission to watch live camera footage of an undisclosed part of Bay Street and monitored the feed for nearly four hours, leading to an arrest.

Milton Thomas, 42, was arrested in connection with the killing on the same day as the surveillance, police said. He was taken into custody on Powell Street between Bay and Francisco streets, has since been charged with murder and remains in custody, according to prosecutors and jail records.

In the Smith case, the father of six was shot and killed at 6:21 p.m. July 21 at Golden Gate Avenue and Hyde Street. By 7:36 p.m., records show police began live monitoring a camera on part of Connecticut Street for three hours.

While police reported making an arrest through the live-monitoring operation, prosecutors said the suspect charged with murder in the case, Randall Evans, 43, was not taken into custody until Aug. 21—a month later.

Evans was also charged and remains in jail.

Eyes on Seventh and Market Intersection

The bulk of the arrests police made during live-monitoring operations were in connection with drug dealing offenses. In one such case from July, records show a group of officers were given permission to monitor the intersections of Seventh and Market streets and Seventh and Stevenson streets from noon to midnight.

The operation resulted in four different drug-dealing-related arrests, police said.

But Zac Dillon, a staffer with the Public Defender’s Office Integrity Unit and a critic of the pilot program, said that the arrests don’t prove the surveillance is working. He said police have not shown how the cameras made a difference.

“All the invasive privacy tech in the world won’t get us out of a drug epidemic,” Dillon said, referring to the fentanyl crisis. “This is just the war on drugs, but instead of SWAT teams and military equipment, it’s cameras.”

People congregate near the intersection of 7th and Market in downtown San Francisco on Oct. 16, 2023.
Officers used live surveillance cameras to watch the corner of Seventh and Market streets—a drug dealing hot spot. | Source: Loren Elliott for The Standard

For his part, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who supported the legislation from Mayor London Breed after negotiating guardrails for the program, said the reports showed the process requiring police to detail their live monitoring was working.

"It's all about trust but verify, and the most recent data is encouraging,” Peskin said. "This was all designed to engender trust in law enforcement, and I think the fact that it is now open and transparent and people can come to their own conclusions helps build that trust.”

While the legislation allowing police to use live monitoring is set to expire next month, Breed will seek approval from the Board of Supervisors to reauthorize the program, her spokesperson, Jeff Cretan, said.

Cretan said the trial run showed “the positive impact we can have when we use technology to support police work.”

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com