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Drones, cameras, trackers: San Diego police release list of tech tools used for surveillance and investigations

Months after San Diego police proposed installing hundreds of smart streetlights across the city — and began the process to seek public comment and city approval — the department released a long list of other surveillance technologies already in use.

Those 70+ items listed, including drones, car trackers, and body-worn cameras, also need to be officially approved.

The police department released the list to comply with a new city ordinance that requires all city departments to disclose the types of surveillance technology they possess. The idea behind the order was to create greater transparency and protect civil liberties.

The list includes 500 smart streetlights and automated license plate readers that the department wants to install across the city. Many locations are located near highways and along major thoroughfares.

Police had access to a network of more than 3,000 smart streetlights a few years ago, but the city cut off that access in 2020 when the public discovered the streetlights contained cameras that collected data. The revelation sparked public outcry over possible overpolicing, especially in communities of color.

This prompted San Diego to pass an ordinance requiring police to disclose what surveillance technology they have and what they are trying to obtain.

“We want to make sure we’re using tools that we’ve been using — would like to think somewhat uncontroversially — for years,” said Police Lt. Charles Lara, who oversees the department’s technical approval process.

He said many of the technologies on the list have been in use for decades and “are central to policing in a modern world.”

List items include:

  • Several types of drones with video capabilities;
  • automatic license plate readers;
  • Surveillance cameras inside and around the town hall;
  • fingerprint readers;
  • GPS trackers for bicycles; And
  • Body-worn cameras.

Other items include the specialized phone that police throw at a suspect during crisis negotiations and the DNA analyzer that detects DNA profiles extracted from evidence.
The department has listed several databases that officers use to help identify and track data, 911 calls and evidence. State arson and sex offender registries were also listed.

Last year, the city council unanimously passed a pair of ordinances that together are dubbed Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology, or TRUST.

An ordinance governs the technology used by the city, requiring it to be reviewed annually and with a civil rights lens. The other created the Privacy Advisory Council to provide advice to city council.

In addition to disclosing surveillance items that police have or wish to purchase, the department must present and explain each item at public meetings in each of the city council’s nine districts.

It is not known when these meetings will take place, but they should take place soon. The Privacy Advisory Board is supposed to review the material within a year of the oversight order taking effect — which means September. And public meetings must take place before the Privacy Advisory Board can review the technology.

Seth Hall, a member of a watchdog coalition monitoring police surveillance, helped craft the order. He said the idea is “to truly inform and engage with every community” so people know what technology the police have and how it could impact their lives.

He said the coalition “believes that surveillance technologies are incredibly personal… They collect information about the life of every person who is caught up with them.”

“What the TRUST Coalition and the City Council want for San Diegans is a real opportunity to have a seat at the table,” Hall said.

Hall noted that the San Diego police have drones made by DJI, a Chinese manufacturer believed to be the world’s largest maker of unmanned aerial vehicles. Several police departments across the country use DJI drones. Spying concerns have sparked a push to ban the use of Chinese-made drones, as Florida did in 2021. There is currently a bipartisan Senate bill to ban the purchase of made-in-China drones. in countries identified as national security threats, including China.

Hall said last week he was concerned about items that weren’t on the list, such as Shot Spotter technology – for detecting gunshots – which caused controversy when it was installed, especially in communities of color. He said the hardware remains installed and in place in San Diego. Police say they haven’t used it in years.

After the TRUST order went into effect, San Diego police offered to install the smart streetlights again. They also want to add license plate readers to streetlights.

The $4 million project would make San Diego the largest US city to use cameras and plate readers as part of a single network.

The police offer to use aerial cameras is still ongoing. It’s been a long process, with public meetings beginning in March followed by a trip to the Privacy Advisory Board last week, where public comments have largely skewed the plan. The same was true for previous public meetings. The video of a meeting drew nearly 400 comments, with over 80% opposition.

At last week’s privacy advisory committee meeting, San Diego resident Ruben Cabrera said he was concerned that police were abusing technology like license plate readers, fearing that not be used to unfairly target communities of color.

“I’m a grown man…but if I’m at a red light right now and there’s law enforcement right behind me, my stomach turns wondering if I’m going to be an example today. “Cabrira said.

San Diego resident Muslah Abdul-Hafeez said the community needs to invest in youth, especially in black and brown communities.

“But the way these cameras are set up, they saturate communities of color…and are designed to target people of color,” Abdul-Hafeez said.

Numerous Zoom callers have raised privacy concerns, including one – who did not provide his full name – who compared the program to the book “1984”.

“It paves the way for totalitarianism,” she said. “And I don’t consent to any of this.”

Catharine Douglass was one of the few people at the meeting who was pro-camera. Douglass, who chairs the La Jolla City Council’s public safety committee, said the cameras would not be used for immigration purposes and would not record private property. She said her committee supports the program because it will help solve the most violent crimes,

“I want these crimes resolved quickly and fairly, as do the victims and their families,” Douglass said. She later added, “Anyone opposed to smart streetlights and license plate readers is aiding and abetting criminal activity, or hasn’t done their research to really understand how, when, where and why this technology is being used. “.

Police say they are developing policies and procedures to prevent “false positives” and misuse of technology, and to set out disciplinary action for anyone who violates those policies. The department would also limit who can access the technology and audit those who have access, according to a city memorandum dated May 25.

The police department said its proposal did not include audio detection or recording, counting vehicles or pedestrians impacting traffic, documenting near-misses, monitoring “unusual behavior” or facial recognition. , according to the memo. If this were to change, the department should make a formal request and return to the Privacy Advisory Board for review.

The video data recorded by the cameras would be destroyed every 15 days, unless used in an investigation.

The 500 smart streetlights will be installed across the city in all council wards, the department said. The locations were selected based on crime data — specifically violent crimes and incidents in which a firearm was used — and information provided by departmental homicide, robbery and crime units. sex crimes.

California Daily Newspapers

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