San Diego police praise 'Smart Street Light' program; critics want public involvement, oversight
The cameras, which are tucked into high-tech street lights, have helped investigators identify suspects, increase public safety
San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — Cameras tucked into new high-tech street lights are powerful aids in solving crimes, silent eyes that more than once have caught overhead images that led to a killer, San Diego police say.
The ones installed in San Ysidro helped investigators zero-in on a suspected gunman in the Nov. 6 shootings of three Church's Chicken workers, one of whom was killed. In downtown San Diego, they helped identify a man suspected of donning a costume mask and shooting to death a business owner in October 2018.
A couple weeks ago, police released images of a driver and a car they believe ran over a woman in a wheelchair in Lincoln Park and then took off. The victim died at the scene. Street light cameras helped police see the driver pull into a gas station. Within hours of releasing the street light and gas station footage to the public, police had the suspect's name.
Police hail the cameras as a highly effective tool. San Diego police Chief David Nisleit called them "a game changer."
"We use them very sparingly, for only the worst type of cases, very violent type of cases, or serious or fatal injury collisions," Nisleit said. "But it's our ability to use them as a reactive tool, as an investigative tip to lead us in the path of who is responsible for the crime. It actually lets us narrow our focus."
Critics say that they, too, are interested in public safety but want to see more oversight in the camera program, and they want a role in shaping the rules.
In an interview earlier this month, Nisleit stressed that Smart Street Lights are not used for surveillance, and police are not monitoring the cameras through a live feed. Rather, he said, they are an investigative tool that allows for "precision policing."
On the night of the shootings at Church's Chicken, Nisleit authorized his investigators to download the camera footage.
The department released an image of the gunman's car, and little more than two weeks later, authorities tracked 49-year-old Albert Lee Blake to Tennessee and arrested him. He has pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges.
"I don't know if Mr. Blake would be in custody right now in this case had it not been for this technology," Nisleit said.
When the city of San Diego approved its Smart Street Lights project three years ago, it was initially presented as a cost-savings plan to replace old street lights with energy-efficient LED ones, at a savings pegged at around $125,000 a month.
Much later came the public revelation that thousands of the lights included data-gathering technology. A fact sheet from the city says the program "evolved" into what it hails as "the world's largest smart city sensor platform."
The city now has 4,700 newly upgraded street lights, more than 3,000 of which have sensors that gather a wide swath of information, including pedestrian and traffic movements, parking availability, environmental conditions and more.
By next year, authorities said, those numbers are expected to grow to 8,600 street lights and 4,200 sensors installed across San Diego. The city says it can use that real-time data to help the community, including improving traffic congestion or making parking easier.
The Police Department and the city insist that the cameras are not capable of facial recognition, nor are they equipped with automated license plate readers. They also say the cameras cannot pan, tilt or zoom. All they get is a static overhead shot.
The footage is available for download for five days, officials said. After that, it's gone. No going back and digging up old footage.
A city spokesman said the decision about where to put the sensors came from an assessment by project partner GE Current and the city, and then put in places where authorities could get the most relevant data. Some uses, like gathering parking data, require more sensors, the city says. About 5 percent of the city's rights-of-way are covered by the nodes. Most are downtown.
Nisleit said he understands the fear some residents have expressed that the technology would be used to racially profile or otherwise discriminate against members of the community. But he said those fears are unwarranted.
"We are not surveilling," he said. "As long as there is not a crime, we are not looking at video."
He said police use of the video is reactive, not proactive. So far, it has been fruitful.
A few hours after the Church's Chicken shooting, police were able to access an image of the car they believed was involved. They provided that image to officers — with information about the type of vehicle, color, exact make and model, and specialized modifications to it — "so they are not stopping every blue sedan," the chief said.
"That is really important for us," he continued. "We are at an age in law enforcement right now where we are striving to engage in precision policing."
He also said the department wants to be "good stewards of technology." He said the department had no say in where the cameras were placed.
San Diego police Capt. Jeffrey Jordon, who oversees the Police Department's access to the footage, said police didn't access the video until August 2018. They started slowly, accessing the videos 46 times from August 2018 through last March. By of the end of last month, that number was up to 205.
Nisleit and Jordon said the department has policy rules governing who gets to download the footage. It's only done in the most serious cases, like those involving homicide and rape.
About 70 people in the department of more than 1,850 sworn officers can access the footage, primarily investigators in crimes of violence. Not all detectives have access, including those who investigate gangs.
According to Jordon, footage from smart street lights helped clear a man initially arrested on suspicion of murder following a fatal shooting in the Gaslamp Quarter in August 2018. Street lights video, he said, revealed that the killing had happened in self-defense.
The cameras aren't helpful in every case. Investigators sought to look at video from the street lights after a man in Little Italy was accused of scuffling with three women wearing hijabs and spewing anti-immigrant comments. Jordon said he looked at the footage, but construction scaffolding obstructed view of the incident.
It's not just San Diego police who want access to the cameras. As of the end of November, outside policing agencies have received access to downloaded footage seven times, Jordon said.
Harbor Police received footage three times after serious injury or fatal collisions. Twice, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives got footage after the agency was invited to assist police investigations in San Diego — one linked to a suspected arson, the other an apparently intentional crash into a defense contractor building.
Once, footage was shared after a joint request from San Diego police and the FBI for an investigation into a vandalism at the FBI's local offices.
And once it was shared after a joint request from police and the San Diego-based Fusion Center, a task force of local, state and federal officials addressing terrorism, which was investigating a report that someone may have shot at a San Diego synagogue.
Public access to the footage is not allowed, police say.
Earlier this month, a watchdog group sued the city of San Diego for not releasing raw data collected through its Smart Street Lights program. The suit filed by attorney Cory Briggs — a candidate for City Attorney who is critical of the city's contract with GE — on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government alleges that the city "illegally failed to disclose" public records requested by the group, which describes itself as a government watchdog.
Briggs filed several public records requests in November asking the city to turn over all the source data collected by sensors on all its Smart Street Lights over a 24-hour period. He also wanted all records related to processed data.
According to court documents, the city told Briggs it had "no responsive documents" to fill his request.
Critics of the program argue that a move toward greater public safety shouldn't come at the expense of privacy and civil rights.
"I feel like we live in this world where everything is a false choice," said Geneviéve Jones-Wright of Trust San Diego, a coalition of critics pushing back against the smart street lights. "No one has ever said that we don't want safer communities. It's the use of this intrusive surveillance technology without proper oversight (that is troubling)."
Jones-Wright, a former deputy public defender, wants more than a policy. She wants law.
"We need an ordinance that is put in place that will contain strong policy and mechanisms for oversight and public discourse... ," she said. "We cannot have the police policing the police."
Jones-Wright and Trust San Diego argue that the Smart Street Lights program was mishandled from the start, given that it was introduced as a way to save energy and money instead of a way to collect data in public spaces.
San Diego County Public Defender Randy Mize said attorneys in his office have seen "many cases prosecuted using such video evidence."
"The City and SDPD claim that the street light cameras are not surveillance tools," he said, "but they are no doubt intrusive and bring into play privacy concerns under the Fourth Amendment."
In October, three City Council members requested a moratorium on further installations of the smart street lights, until the council adopts a policy regarding who gets access to the data and how it is used.
"While we support San Diego Police Department's mission to maintain public safety, we also need to ensure that policies exist to protect the public's right to privacy," the request reads.
On Friday, Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who chairs the city's Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee, issued a statement to the Union-Tribune, saying that she stands with those voicing concerns over how the technology is used, and said she is "open to exploring policy solutions regarding this usage."
"As elected officials, we must ensure that the proper policies are in place to protect San Diegans' right to privacy and our civil liberties," Montgomery said.
Again, Nisleit acknowledged the concerns but said his department has heard from a "majority of the public" who say they want the cameras installed.
"I think we are forgetting that conversation, too," he said. "We are listening to those that are very opposed, but we are not listening to those that are very much a give-me-more type of mentality (towards the cameras). ... I think that is an important piece."
He said people forget to ask, "what about the victim, what about their families, what about our ability to keep this community safe?"
The Mayor's Office confirmed that the city is crafting a smart street light policy to bring to the Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods Committee in response to community feedback.