San Diego Police Department

San Diego City Council, Police Chief Negotiating Terms for New Smart Streetlight Rules

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A last-minute amendment may slow the passage of a new ordinance in San Diego aimed at restricting the use of surveillance tools like so-called "smart streetlights," street lights equipped with surveillance cameras.

Smart streetlight technology has already helped police solve serious crimes and exonerate the innocent, but their use came to an abrupt halt in September 2020 because of the lack of city oversight.

The new ordinance, proposed by Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, requires the disclosure of who is being surveilled and why that camera footage is being used.

"It provides oversight and the checks and balances for all types of surveillance technology that the city may purchase," Montgomery Steppe said.

Chief of Police David Nisleit, on the other hand, claims the ordinance could create a conflict between SDPD and federal law enforcement partners. Nisleit's department has 16 non-disclosure agreements (NDA) with federal task forces that prevent police from talking about the cases they’re working on.

“You’ve put me in a position, you’ve put my task force officers in a position where … if we do something over here we’re in violation of the privacy ordinance, and if we do something over here we’re in violation of federal law. I don’t want to violate either,” Nisleit told the city council.

The city council is trying to find a balance between helping police solve crimes with surveillance camera technology and protecting people’s privacy, and it’s not easy.

But a proposed amendment could solve the problem -- an exemption for officers working on task force cases that fall under SDPD's umbrella of NDA's.

"From mass shootings, to school threats, to the fentanyl epidemic this country has seen, it’s not proper right now to eliminate our conversations with our federal partners," Nisleit argued.

Some fear the amendment takes the teeth out of the ordinance, and gives SDPD a way to dodge transparency.

The vote on the change is scheduled for July 19.

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