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August 14, 2007
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Surveillance cams not helping SFPD cut into homicides

By Heather Knight
The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO The 178 video cameras that keep watch on San Francisco public housing developments have never helped police officers arrest a homicide suspect even though about a quarter of the city's homicides occur on or near public housing property, city officials say.

Nobody monitors the cameras, and the videos are seen only if police specifically request it from San Francisco Housing Authority officials. The cameras have occasionally managed to miss crimes happening in front of them because they were trained in another direction, and footage is particularly grainy at night when most crime occurs, according to police and city officials.

Similar concerns have been raised about the 70 city-owned cameras located at high-crime locations around San Francisco.

The 178 cameras on public housing property, which have been installed over the past two years with money from the federal government, were the subject of a hearing Monday by the Board of Supervisors' public safety committee.

So far this year, 66 homicides have occurred in San Francisco, compared with 85 in all of 2006. On average, about a quarter of the city's homicides happen on or near public housing property every year, according to statistics from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.

Though the Housing Authority doesn't keep a record of how often its cameras' footage is used in making arrests in crimes, a housing authority official and a police lieutenant told the committee they are unaware of the footage ever being used to arrest a homicide suspect.

The city has its own security camera program with 70 cameras in 25 high-crime locations. None of them is on federal housing authority property, but many of them are positioned at street corners right outside them. The city cameras operate in much the same way; they are not routinely monitored in part due to privacy concerns, but footage is available to police upon request.

Lenore Anderson, director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, said she didn't know whether any city cameras had been used to make an arrest in a homicide case. She said more studies need to be done on the security cameras because Monday's hearing was based primarily on anecdotal evidence.

"We absolutely support the investigation into the effectiveness of these and look forward to continuing the conversation," she said.

The Housing Authority, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, owns 53 housing developments around the city that contain 6,360 apartments occupied by about 12,000 tenants most of whom have low incomes.

The authority has spent $203,603 to purchase and maintain its cameras since installing the first batch in the summer of 2005. It has plans to install another 81 cameras, but no date has been set.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, chairman of the committee, called the hearing after learning from frustrated residents of public housing developments in the Western Addition that crimes occurring in front of cameras weren't leading to arrests.

Mirkarimi has been a vocal critic of the Housing Authority and said the ineffective cameras are an example of the agency falling down on the job. He said he will call a hearing soon about the possibility of the city taking over the federal authority, an idea that has been raised and rejected in the past.

"The city should be much more vigorous in deciding the fate and future of the Housing Authority, including looking at the city taking it over," he said Monday.

Four homicides have occurred in the past 12 months at the intersection of Laguna and Eddy streets - at the corner of the Plaza East public housing development including the daytime killing of a 19-year-old in May. A security camera is trained on that corner but so far has not proven useful in making any arrests, Mirkarimi said.

Both the Housing Authority and city have many security cameras in the area, and it wasn't clear Monday whether the camera in question was purchased by the Housing Authority or city. In any case, the camera hasn't helped make arrests in the crimes, Mirkarimi said.

"They're feeling strongly that they don't work," Mirkarimi said of Western Addition residents' views of the security cameras. "They're just apoplectic why they can't figure out why nothing comes of this."

He added that he thinks the cameras may have "a scarecrow effect" in that they give residents the feeling they are safer when they actually have little impact on crime.

Tim Larsen, general counsel for the Housing Authority, said he gets a call from the Police Department about every two weeks asking to see camera footage. He said the cameras have been useful in other crimes including the assault two weeks ago of a woman held at gunpoint inside a Sanchez Street housing development.

Lt. John Murphy of the homicide detail called the quality of the camera's pictures "very poor" and said that crimes committed during the night tend to just show up as a shadowy figure dressed in dark clothes running quickly. "Bang, bang, bang they're back in the shadows and gone," Murphy said.

"You see where it occurred, but to positively ID someone? No," he said. "If we can improve the technology in any way, that would be great."

He pointed out that other jurisdictions pay people to monitor the cameras and that they can actually spot a crime about to happen and report it to police in time to prevent the crime.

Larsen said the Housing Authority wants to pay staff to monitor the cameras at all times, but that the agency's dwindling budget makes coming up with the money a challenge. Other immediate needs, including repairing decrepit public housing developments, are competing for the same pot of money, he said.

"It's a balancing act," he said. "What's more important? Obviously, security is important, but so are the roofs and the sewer lines."

Larsen also emphasized the cameras are just one tool among many in reducing crime in the public housing developments. Other initiatives include the community policing program, in which officers try to become part of the neighborhood and get to know residents rather than just responding to emergencies, and the enforcement of anti-trespassing ordinances.

Gregg Fortner, director of the Housing Authority, was out of town and did not attend Monday's meeting. Reached by phone, he said he thinks the cameras are preventing crime.

"You can't measure a crime that wasn't committed," he said. "The fact is, we tried something. If it works, it works, but if it doesn't, it doesn't. At least we're making an effort. If somebody has a better idea, give it to us."

E-mail Heather Knight at hknight@sfchronicle.com.

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