San Diego City Council approves return of Smart Streetlights, license plate readers

Implementation of the technologies could come in the near future

🔽 Map of proposed streetlight locations

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The San Diego City Council Tuesday authorized the use of much-debated "Smart Streetlights" and Automatic License Plate Reader technology to fight crime in the city.

Tuesday's action does not implement the technologies, but does open up the possibility the San Diego Police Department could use cameras and license plate readers, pending a review of any contract with a private company.

In a 7-2 vote, council members approve the use of 500 streetlight cameras to patrol the city. This vote, however, brings privacy concerns for some. NBC 7’s Priya Sridhar reports.

The council passed the authorization for the streetlights 7-2 and license plate readers 6-3.

While the council action does not move the plan directly forward, the Fiscal Year 2024 budget includes $3.5 million in the police department's general fund budget for the deployment of 500 smart streetlights -- streetlights with cameras and data-gathering software -- making the implementation of the technologies a possibility in the near future.

Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert, head of the Public Safety Committee, where the authorization was passed 3-1 on July 19, said the technologies were unambiguously going to help police officers reduce crime.

"Cameras in high-traffic areas can help prevent crimes, and solve them," she said, before clarifying again to the dozens of people who offered public comment that Tuesday's action was just to explore the use of the technology.

A map of all the proposed Smart Streetlight locations can be found here.

It isn't San Diego's first entanglement with smart streetlights. In 2016, council approved $30 million for the use of 4,200 smart streetlights outfitted with cameras -- 3,200 of which were deployed before the program was suspended in September 2020 following significant public backlash.

According to the SDPD, of the 400 cases in which those cameras were used, 100 of them used technology to secure convictions, another 100 helped cases and 200 may have provided assistance. However, those cameras are beyond their service life and can no longer be activated, a SDPD spokesman said.

NBC 7's Omari Fleming heard from community members hesitant to embrace SDPD's advanced surveillance techniques, and shares reaction to criticism from police.

The city is still paying around $1 million a year for the long-defunct program.

"There have been a number of very important crimes solved, and just as importantly, a number of people exonerated because of Smart Streetlight cameras," Mayor Todd Gloria said at a news conference held Monday to urge the council to authorize the technologies. "These cameras help us catch suspects before they commit more crimes and give peace to victims and families of victims when the cases are solved and perpetrators are brought to justice."

However, most of the speakers at the Tuesday council meeting were vehemently against the technology being used -- or at least being authorized before the city's Privacy Advisory Board had a chance to study it.

Lilly Irani, an associate professor at UC San Diego and an organizer with Tech Workers Coalition, said the council was setting a precedent of mistrust.

"The community consensus is that nobody is listening," she said, describing the Public Safety Committee's approval of the SDPD's proposed authorization last month without any changes "a mockery of the hundreds of hours of effort that people have put into this."

Seth Hall, co-founder of the community group San Diego Privacy, a member of the privacy-focused TRUST SD Coalition, said there was no combination of both streetlight cameras and license plate readers anywhere in the country.

SDPD Acting Capt. Charles Lara offered more context on what the police department was proposing.

Lara said the technology would not be used to record sound, use facial technology, be able to view private places where members of the public "have an expectation of privacy" or used to target specific groups, such as outside reproductive health clinics, mosques or to be used in immigration enforcement. Additionally, he said the technologies would not be used for traffic enforcement and gunshot detection technology is not included.

"This is a proven crime fighting tool," he said. "It reduces police contact with the innocent."

"Video masking," to block views which may be able to see inside private residences or businesses, would be used to permanently scrub parts of video collected. According to the SDPD, cameras will be rewritten after 15 days and license plates after 30 days.

In an attempt toward transparency, the police department will also record every time the license plate system is searched, creating an audit trail.

Regardless of what the police department claimed, Erin Tsurumoto Grassi, policy director of Alliance SD, part of TRUST SD Coalition, said she was worried about the potential use of the technologies on poorer communities and people of color.

"There is no public safety without community trust," she said.

City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said he was frustrated at how the conversation was being presented -- as a false choice between wanting safety or valuing civil liberties.

"I could not value the safety of my constituents any more," he said. "Any inference about the rest of us not worried about that is disingenuous and counterproductive. People cannot feel safe if they do not trust the community they are living in."

Elo-Rivera said he didn't trust a process that sidestepped recommendations from various appointed technology and privacy boards

"It's not a slight at SDPD ... there are too many unanswered questions here," he said.

Other members of the public, including family members of victims of crime and business leaders, urged the council to pass the authorization.

While San Diego may be one of the first to have a combination of streetlight cameras and license plate readers, it is not the first to use those individual technologies. On March 14, the El Cajon City Council approved a one- year pilot program for the El Cajon Police Department's use of automated license plate reading cameras, built by Flock Safety.

On July 28th, several El Cajon Police Department members received training provided by Flock. That same day, the ECPD used the technology to help law enforcement make two arrests, one regarding a vehicle stolen during a violent robbery and carjacking in Lemon Grove on July 22. A San Diego Sheriff's Department deputy intercepted the vehicle within minutes and apprehended two suspects.

Later that evening, another alert signaled the presence of a vehicle stolen during a commercial burglary in Winterhaven in Imperial County on July 26th. A El Cajon police officer located the occupied vehicle at a gas station parking lot and promptly arrested the suspect.

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