San Francisco mayor proposes broader police access to surveillance video in light of mass retail thefts

On the heels of high profile retail crimes in San Francisco’s Union Square, Mayor London Breed is proposing to allow the police more leeway to monitor surveillance cameras in real-time and track the fencing of stolen goods on the streets.

Breed announced a proposal Tuesday to lift the limits on San Francisco officers watching live surveillance feeds from cameras around the city, allowing them to tap into video whenever a crime has occurred. The current law allows for police to access such video only when someone’s life is in danger or there could be serious physical injury. 

The mayor said police were restricted in how fast they could catch groups of thieves who stormed Louis Vuitton and other stores, breaking windows, and making off with thousands of dollars in merchandise from Union Square shops last month. 

"We need to give officers more tools to do their jobs." Breed said. "When there are multiple robbery crews hitting multiple stores they couldn’t even access those cameras. Which is ridiculous." 

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The mayor’s announcement caught the attention of privacy rights advocates who have long criticized government surveillance of citizens, saying it allows police to keep tabs on people in invasive ways. 

Privacy advocate Brian Hofer, who co-authored San Francisco's ordinance, said he doesn't know yet what Breed wants to change exactly in the law. But he suspects that she wants to allow officers to use surveillance technology in real-time for property theft, too.

But he said that is fraught with problems.

First, what kind of property theft?

"What if it's for someone who is littering or for petty theft?" Hofer asked hypothetically. "I don't think we want the ordinance to be used for something so minor."

Second, Hofer said that the current law of "exigent circumstances" already allows for officers to use this surveillance technology if it warrants it. 

For example, the Luis Vuitton mass thefts arguably put employees' and customers' lives in danger, he said, as do many smash-and-grabs when thieves use hammers and vehicles to break into glass cases. 

"The existing definition gives her what she wants already," he said. 

Hofer said he supports using technology when there is a real crime that needs immediate attention. But he does not support allowing law enforcement to simply watch surveillance technology for surveillance’s sake. 

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In 2019, San Francisco passed its surveillance technology law, which requires police to get approval from the Board of Supervisors before using tech like facial recognition, license plate readers, or private security camera information. 

Last year, the ACLU sued San Francisco police claiming that officers tapped into a network of private cameras in Union Square to monitor Black Lives Matter protests, in violation of the ordinance. 

San Francisco’s ordinance currently allows police to temporarily use surveillance when responding to "exigent circumstances," which is defined as an emergency where someone’s life is threatened or they are at risk of serious physical harm. 

The rule also restricts police to temporary access to the surveillance tech. They must stop using it within seven days or sooner, if the threat passes, and must delete any data that was not relevant to the investigation. 

Breed acknowledged that privacy rights need to be considered, but insisted the need is urgent. 

"There is a balance to be had, I know. But right now when our officers aren’t able to use cameras during a mass looting event, then that policy is out of balance," she said.

The mayor’s proposal also includes broadening the power to police the sales of goods on the street by creating an exclusion zone where vending is prohibited, requiring vendors to display permits, and giving city enforcement staff the ability to demand proof of purchase from sellers or confiscate goods.

Breed said the proposed changes will go before the Board of Supervisors in January.