Castro reflects on controversial plan to install surveillance camera network

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A community group in Castro funded by a billionaire tech investor is facing a refusal for seeking to install a network of anti-crime surveillance cameras in the historically LGBTQ neighborhood.

The Castro Upper Market Community Benefit District, a public-private partnership of local businesses and owners, plans to install the camera array with a $ 695,000 donation from Chris Larsen, co-founder of tech company Ripple and major political donor in San Francisco. .

The group’s executive director, Andrea Aiello, argues that the cameras would help solve and prevent crime by making it easier for police to obtain video footage. At a community meeting Tuesday night, she said the area already has 224 cameras, but the devices are owned and operated by individuals.

“This is important for effective and efficient crime prevention because law enforcement only has to go to one location to get the footage,” Aiello said. She said the cameras would be placed on private property, with some positioned at major intersections along Upper Market Street, which are hot spots for crime.

But the proposal raises privacy concerns for members of a community that has experienced discrimination and violence from police in the past. Organizations like the democratic clubs Harvey Milk and Alice B. Toklas LQBTQ and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District oppose it.

Stephen Torres, a member of the Cultural District Advisory Board, said in an interview on Wednesday that people who do not openly share their LGBTQ identities visit the Castro from other cities or countries and are registered unknowingly. He also said there was a history of the LGBTQ community “being targeted from time to time by law enforcement.”

“It doesn’t mean anything about the current direction of San Francisco right now, it’s just a reality and a historical fact that it has happened,” Torres said. “So allowing access to this type of information to any type of law enforcement, especially given the history of our community, I think a lot of people would think about it.”

Larsen is the same donor who has helped fund surveillance networks run by quasi-public groups in other neighborhoods, including Tenderloin and Union Square. One such network came under scrutiny last summer when the Union Square business improvement district allowed police access to real-time cameras to monitor protests and looting. following the murder of George Floyd by the police.

The live access issue sparked a lawsuit against the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation last October, alleging that police violated a city ordinance prohibiting them from using new media. surveillance technologies without the prior approval of the Supervisory Board. The concern is that the surveillance could make protesters less likely to exercise their First Amendment rights and take to the streets.

At the community meeting on Tuesday evening, Aiello said Castro’s CBD was considering political guidelines that would prevent law enforcement from accessing its cameras in real time. The images would also be stored for a maximum period of 30 days and could only be viewed for evidentiary purposes if a crime was reported.

“We have learned so much about the importance of confidentiality and how to develop controls and procedures that really ensure confidentiality and do not put it at risk,” said Aiello.

But in an interview on Wednesday, EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia questioned whether politics can really limit police access.

“Activities protected by the First Amendment can easily be monitored by the police just because they have the capacity to do so,” Guariglia said. “San Francisco already has a law on the books that also prevented this type of behavior and still hasn’t stopped them. “

Guariglia said he would be “more comfortable” with the cameras mounted if police needed a warrant to access the footage each time, including directions on how the video could be used. He also questioned the premise that the new network would stop crimes, when the area is already “covered with cameras”.

“If that doesn’t prevent crime, what makes them think more cameras will?” Said Guariglia. “I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence that someone desperate enough to commit a crime is going to see a camera and stop.”

Supporters of the cameras say networks can make it easier for prosecutors to obtain convictions. Instead of having to call a resident or merchant reluctant to testify in a case about the video footage they recorded, prosecutors could call a public utility district camera administrator to the stand.

Tom Ostly, a former deputy district attorney, said cameras can not only help convict but acquit.

“The cameras are not political, they are not biased, they just show what happened,” Ostly said at the meeting. “As a prosecutor, one of the nightmarish scenarios is actually to prosecute someone who has not done so. Video greatly reduces the risk of this happening.

Randall Scott, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, said his group operates more than 40 cameras that have been helpful in solving crime and vehicle crashes. He said his cameras were used under “enormous surveillance” and operated under a less restrictive policy than that proposed.

“These systems are more monitored than anything else and they don’t have microphones and only watch public space,” Scott said at the meeting. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what you wear, what type of vehicle you drive. The cameras are only passive, there is no live surveillance. This is our use.

The Japantown Community Benefit District also has around 120 cameras which officials say helped respond to rampant car break-ins before the pandemic.

The Castro CBD board did not vote on accepting Larsen’s donation to install the cameras. The Bay Area Reporter previously reported that the vote was delayed due to opposition to the proposal. The board is expected to return to the matter next month.

In a statement, Larsen said the camera programs are both “driven and maintained” by the community.

“In many ways, technology has contributed to the disparity and the problems we see in San Francisco today,” Larsen said. “As members of the community, I think it’s our job to help resolve them by reinvesting in the city, making it safe and supporting our small businesses.”

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