San Diego Police install surveillance camera-equipped ‘Smart Streetlights' in Hillcrest

Last year, San Diego City Council agreed to allow the return of Smart Streetlights following public backlash

NBC Universal, Inc.

San Diego Police announced Sunday it will begin installing surveillance-equipped streetlights and automated license plate readers in Hillcrest and other locations ahead of Pride.

SDPD Chief Scott Wahl said the surveillance technology dubbed "Smart Streetlights" will be installed at 14 locations across Hillcrest, on top of the 8 that already exist, according to the city's smart streetlight map.

The move will be made to "protect against hate crimes and attacks on mass gatherings" in the popular LGBTQ+ community center, SDPD.

Hillcrest has recently been the target of hate-related attacks. SDPD was investigating at least four incidents at LGBTQ-friendly businesses, including at Rich's Club, where San Diego Police Chief Scott Wahl held a news conference Monday to address their reason for installing the streetlights in that location. Police said that suspects in a vehicle targeted businesses using gel pellets. People were injured in some of those attacks.

"With the rise in hate crimes and our upcoming annual Pride parade and festival, we want to leverage this technology to protect our LGBTQ community. I’m proud to have several community leaders working with us to combat hate and hold criminals accountable," Wahl said.

The law enforcement agency and the companies they contract with tout the cameras as an aid to help law enforcement deter, investigate, and hold people accountable for criminal activity but some are skeptical of their use.

John Brodie, a Hillcrest resident who lives blocks away from one of the newly installed streetlights, said the idea of a device monitoring public spaces he frequents on a 24-hour basis makes him uncomfortable.

“My privacy is being invaded to a certain degree with these cameras. Right. So I don't have anything to hide. But that doesn't mean you can just watch me. I don't feel that that's appropriate.

“How do you determine where are you going to put them? Right. I mean, why was that a good intersection?” Brodie said.

SDPD entered into a five-year agreement with Ubicquia Inc. for 500 Smart Streetlight cameras, paired with Flock Safety's ALPR technology.

According to a city staff report, the devices installed so far have helped solve nearly 120 investigations and recover more than $1 million worth of property since they started being installed in December 2023.

Last year, San Diego City Council agreed to allow the return of Smart Streetlights following public backlash that led then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer to shutter the program. It also led to several reports from NBC 7 Investigates.

Some have privacy concerns while others are grateful for the extra support SDPD will receive to fight crime. NBC 7's Jeanette Quezada reports.

Community members like Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology San Diego Coalition (TRUST SD) raised questions about the Police Department’s lack of transparency while using the 3,200 cameras that were first installed across the city back in 2016.

That led to the formation of a privacy advisory board.

“That board advises city council on how the city can use these kinds of technologies safely,” a spokesperson for TRUST SD said.

According to a surveillance impact report provided to the San Diego City Countil by the San Diego Police Department, the cameras do not use facial recognition and are only reviewed when an investigative need exists, adding that the locations are selected based on violent crime statistics and input from investigative units, patrol division commanding officers, community members, and council members.

SDPD said once the cameras are installed, they are individually reviewed to ensure the viewpoint digitally masks private property. Police officers and investigators must take training before gaining access to the camera system and can only access the system with a case or event number. Video is deleted after 13 days and license-plate reader data after 30, unless it is being used as part of an investigation.

In a statement to NBC 7, Ike Anyanetu, Chair of the San Diego Privacy Advisory Board said the use policy and impact report for the streetlights are non-compliant.

We don’t have a clear, exhaustive list of uses, no description of the equipment, no information about the security of the service and do not know any AI capabilities of the technologies,” the statement read, in part.

Despite privacy concerns, some residents welcome the additional support for San Diego's police officers.

“If it helps the police department to keep our streets safer, I don't see any problems with it," one Hillcrest resident told NBC 7. "I have nothing to hide. So me getting on film across the street or in my car walking, it doesn't affect me at all.”

Contact Us