SFPD wants to monitor crime in real-time with access to private security cameras

The San Francisco Police Department on Monday offered new insight into how it would use privately owned surveillance cameras if the Board of Supervisors approves the plan.

Officers said when said the department would have guardrails in place when accessing private cameras to protect civil liberties. But some still have reservations.

Chief Bill Scott said being able to monitor crime in real-time would allow police to respond more quickly.

"If we could tap into that information we could be more efficient, more effective and more surgical in terms of the people who are involved in activity, making sure we address those people and not others who are not involved in that activity," said Scott.

The department said it's working to develop a system to protect civil liberties. Officers said they would ask on a case-by-case basis for permission to access the footage. 

The department also said it's working on guidelines to make sure video isn't stored or used at some later time unless it can be tied to a specific incident.

"We definitely understand that there is a balance between what we need to do in this city with private surveillance cameras and the constitutional privacy that we enjoy in this country," said Scott.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is one of the groups expressing concerns and said the current proposal still does not go far enough to protect people from routine invasions of privacy.

"We're really concerned about the impact to First Amendment rights, to the privacy rights of San Franciscans just going about their everyday regular lives, and what this means particularly to marginalized communities," said Saira Hussain from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Union Square is one of the areas with a robust camera network the department may ask to access.

The Union Square Alliance says it wants to work with the department to make sure access is granted to its network of cameras to prevent mob-style robberies, but with the understanding that officers would not abuse the privilege.

"This is for keeping San Franciscans safe," said Marisa Rodriquez from the Union Square Alliance."This is for keeping visitors to our beautiful city safe, and really being mindful. There's a balance here. We want to make sure this is under certain circumstances, heightened circumstances."

Right now police can access cameras after the fact, this proposal would allow them to access those private cameras in real time.

A committee is set to revisit the issue of police access to cameras next week, and the Board of Supervisors could vote on the plan by the end of the month.