SF mayor wants more surveillance cameras
By Demian Bulwa
The San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Despite questions about the effectiveness of his 2-year-old surveillance camera program, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom will seek next month to add 25 cameras along Market Street and violence-plagued corridors like Sunnydale Avenue in Visitacion Valley.
The move would bring to 93 the number of anti-crime cameras installed in the city since July 2005, costing a total of $700,000. Before that happens, the city plans to hammer out a contract with a group of University of California researchers who would, for the first time, try to figure out whether the cameras are preventing or solving crime.
Newsom said he is responding to residents who are clamoring for cameras in their neighborhoods. However, he will face an increasingly skeptical Police Commission when he asks for approval of the new sites, which, according to a preliminary list, include intersections in Chinatown, the Mission District and Bayview-Hunters Point.
In January, while approving an earlier batch of cameras, commissioners expressed disappointment that they had been given little information about whether the devices were useful. On Thursday, they said their approval of additional cameras would depend heavily on such data.
"The community is under the impression that the cameras are working, but there hasn't been any evidence," said Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese.
"I'm going to be looking at the analysis not only to see whether new cameras should be placed, but whether the existing cameras should be continued," said Commissioner David Campos. "The civil rights implications are so huge that, before you even start thinking about expanding the use of the cameras, you have to answer the basic question: Do they work?"
The cameras have been criticized in recent weeks because they have helped San Francisco police make just one arrest, for an attempted murder, in more than two years.
Newsom and Police Chief Heather Fong said the cameras prevent some crimes from happening at all - a benefit that is difficult to measure — and make people feel safer. "The level of comfort the cameras provide to people should not be diminished," Newsom said in a recent interview.
But many surveillance experts and police officials in other cities question whether San Francisco's program can succeed if police do not monitor the cameras in real time.
A city law, prompted by civil liberty concerns, allows police to request footage only after a crime occurs. Records show that San Francisco police inspectors ask for footage about twice a month and only in the most serious cases. In other cities, police use cameras to bust drug users and dealers and even to sort out traffic collisions.
An ordinance the Board of Supervisors passed last summer requires an annual report on the cameras, and the first report is due no later than January. But a study has not yet begun. City Administrator Ed Lee said this week that he was close to finalizing a contract with the University of California's Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society.
Lee said he hoped the group, which would be paid $50,000 to $75,000, would issue a preliminary report in November, before Newsom asks for more cameras. A full report would be completed next year.
Lee said the study might include an analysis of crime statistics, interviews with police officers and residents and a comparison of San Francisco's approach to that of other cities. Few similar studies have been done in the United States despite a surge in the use of surveillance since al Qaeda's attacks Sept. 11, 2001.
Jennifer King, a research specialist at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall Law School, said the group met with city officials last Friday — five months after initially agreeing to perform the work. Asked whether the group could produce a report on the cameras in the next month, King said it would be difficult.
"It would depend on how quickly we can obtain data" such as crime statistics, King said. "Even with that, it would be challenging."
"If it takes more time, so be it," said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Newsom. "Let's get it right."
Newsom did not wait for the study results before deciding to seek the 25 additional cameras, which would be placed at about 10 intersections. But Ballard said the study will help the city decide whether to expand the program or change it.
"The reason we want to move forward with expanding the pilot program," Ballard said, "is we are getting overwhelming positive responses from constituents in the neighborhoods where the cameras are."
Because of the lack of arrests, questions have been raised about the quality of the footage provided by San Francisco's cameras. But city officials and surveillance experts said the cameras now being used, made by IQinVision of San Clemente (Orange County), are considered to be on the cutting edge.
The federally funded San Francisco Housing Authority, which has spent $200,000 on 178 cameras at its sites, uses cameras that produce footage of lesser quality, according to city officials. Housing Authority officials have defended the cameras, saying they were the best available for the money.
A list of potential sites for the additional 25 cameras, provided by Newsom's office, includes the corner of Eddy and Laguna streets outside the Yerba Buena Plaza East housing project in the Western Addition, the site of a rash of recent shootings; Pacific Avenue and Stockton Street in Chinatown; and 24th and Harrison streets in the Mission District, where City Attorney Dennis Herrera recently asked for a civil injunction against the Norteño gang.
Another potential location is Seventh and Market streets, where on Thursday afternoon panhandlers held cardboard signs, and a scruffy man darted around trying to hawk a handful of jewelry. The sidewalks bustled with tourists, with workers from nearby government offices and with students from UC Hastings College of the Law and the San Francisco Art Institute, which are within a block.
The intersection - ringed by a check-cashing store, doughnut shops and BART access stairwells - is known less for violence than as a magnet for drug-addicted thieves who sell stolen goods, including electronics, to men who resell the items elsewhere at a higher price, residents and merchants said. They had mixed feelings about the cameras.
"I think it'll help clean up this area," said Sergio, a 39-year-old city resident who declined to give his last name because he had just emerged from an alcohol addiction meeting. He said he had once sold stolen goods as a way to buy liquor. "People will feel safer and shop down here more."
Byron Yee, executive manager of the tourist Renoir Hotel on the corner, said the cameras "can't hurt." But he said police should not tell the area's thieves that the cameras are not monitored.
Joan Gordon, a community health outreach worker who spends time in the area, was less enthusiastic. She said a male friend visiting from San Rafael had, a day earlier, been pickpocketed on the corner.
"It's a good idea because it looks like the city's doing something," she said of the cameras as she drank coffee in a doughnut shop. "But it's not going to make a real difference. It's not going to deter the hard-core folks. They're not going to think twice before they shoot you."
Her friend Robert Miramontez said Newsom instead should spend the money dealing with poverty and drug addiction, which fuel crime.
"I don't believe in Big Brother," he said.
Newsom said the way his cameras are operated protects civil liberties, and he said he will remove them "the minute the community says we don't want it."
Last month, he pointed to the success of other cities in a commentary published in the San Francisco Examiner. Chicago police, he said, had credited cameras with helping to lower crime, while crime had dropped "dramatically" in the United Kingdom in areas where cameras were used.
But surveillance experts point to a dire need for U.S. studies of anti-crime cameras. Chicago, which did experience drop in violent crime last year, has not completed one. And a 2005 study of 14 surveillance camera systems around England for the Home Office, the agency charged with protecting the British public from terrorism and crime, concluded that "most systems revealed little overall effect on crime levels."
Newsom's spokesman Ballard, who helped prepare the commentary, said other studies and news reports support the mayor's claims. "I am satisfied the assertions made ... are grounded in solid facts," he said.
Police Commission President Theresa Sparks said she would not put Newsom's request for more cameras on the commission's agenda until she has more facts.
"I'm surprised the mayor would consider installing more cameras when we don't know if they are working," she said. "I don't understand the logic behind that."
Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle
SF mayor wants more surveillance cameras