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CA police department ramps up use of streetlamp video cameras, ACLU raises surveillance concerns

Streetlight camera (Frank Magdelyns/Pixabay)

When police stopped a cab around 2 a.m. to find Jonathan Hernandez with a handgun fleeing the scene of a fatal Gaslamp Quarter shooting, authorities thought it was an open-and-shut case.

Hernandez was booked into jail on suspicion of murder, but the investigation from last August would take an unexpected turn.

“Obviously, with any of these investigations there’s a great deal of follow-up to do, but it seemed pretty straightforward at that time,” said Sgt. Louis Maggi with the homicide unit.

The next day, police investigators went out to 5th Avenue and Market Street, where witnesses said a vicious fight had led to the killing. Officers canvassed the area for video of the incident when they noticed a camera built into a streetlamp at the intersection.

San Diego has installed thousands of microphones and cameras in so-called smart streetlamps in recent years as part of a program to assess traffic and parking patterns throughout the city.

However, the technology over the last year caught the attention of law enforcement. When police officers picked up Hernandez last summer, they had never used a streetlamp camera in an investigation.

Today, such video has been viewed in connection with more than 140 police investigations. Officers have increasingly turned to the footage to help crack cases, as frequently as 20 times a month.

Police department officials have said that the video footage has been crucial in roughly 40 percent of these cases.

The smart streetlamps have been “game changing,” said Lt. Jeffrey Jordon, who oversees the program for the department.

“We’ve had a lot of success stories recently, a couple of convictions where people have actually seen the video through a defense attorney and they immediately took a guilty plea rather than go to trial,” he said.

At the same time, the technology likely saved the 24-year-old Hernandez from a long prison term. A review of the video showed the man he shot had first violently attacked him with a folding sidewalk street sign. At one point, the metal and wood sign struck the streetlamp that was recording, giving officers a good sense of how hard the attacker was swinging.

“Once we had that footage, we could see as clear as day what had actually transpired,” said Sgt. Maggi.

Prosecutors decided the shooting was self-defense and the homicide charges were dropped.

Privacy groups have voiced concerns about a lack of oversight, as law enforcement has embraced the new technology.

Groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have pushed city councils across the country to adopt surveillance oversight ordinances that create strict rules around using everything from license plate readers to gunshot-detection systems to streetlamp cameras.

San Diego’s smart streetlamp program started around 2016 to collect metadata from cameras tracking the number of people walking, biking or driving through busy intersections.

The city installed the recording system as part of an LED upgrade to its streetlamps. Officials have said the new bulbs will save enough money on electricity to pay for the roughly $30 million program by 2030.

Three years later, it’s still unclear what the data will ultimately be used for. One idea has been that the information, which is publicly available to web developers and others, will fuel an app that helps people find empty parking spaces. City officials have said they also hope to use the system to track parking meter violations, as well as the number of people using bike lanes.

Right now, only the police department has the authority to view the actual video footage, according to officials. Although subject to change, the department’s internal policy says footage should only be reviewed in connection with violent crimes.

Authorities said that direct access is currently restricted to roughly 100 investigative officers in the sex crimes, robbery, traffic, internal affairs and homicide units. Other members of the department’s more than 1,800 sworn officers can request access but must be cleared by a designated authority before they view footage.

This arrangement has disturbed Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney with the ACLU.

“This sounds like the quote, ‘just trust us’ approach to surveillance technology, which is a recipe for invasive uses and abuse of these systems,” he said. “There needs to be meaningful oversight and accountability.

“Decisions about how to use surveillance technology should not be made unilaterally by law enforcement or another city agency,” he added

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer declined an interview for this story, but a spokesperson for his office said in an email that a citywide policy to regulate use of the microphones and cameras in streetlamps is “under development.”

City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who chairs the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee, said in an email that she’s “open to exploring” oversight of the program.

“Technology is advancing at a rapid pace,” she said. “As elected officials, we have to not only keep up with the increasing developments, but also ensure that the civil rights and civil liberties of our residents are protected.”

Thirteen cities and counties in the United States have adopted a version of the ACLU’s proposed surveillance oversight legislation, including San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle, according to the group’s website. California is also considering a statewide bill.

Suggested guidelines include mandating a public process to review technology before it’s implemented, as well as conducting regular audits of existing systems to document how the surveillance technologies are being used and potentially abused.

San Diego’s police department has diligently responded to concerns about the program in recent months, reaching out to elected officials and holding regular community forums.

“We don’t have a room set up where anybody’s watching this,” Jordon of the police department recently told members of the San Diego City Council at a public meeting in June.

“It’s a reactive tool, typically accessed following a violent crime,” he added.

Jordon has overseen the police department’s implementation of the program from its inception last year.

Among other things, he’s in charge of monitoring who’s using the video and compiling a publicly available log that lists every case where video has been viewed, including the date, time, and location of an incident. The document also identifies the supervising officer and the offense a suspect was charged with.

Jordon is quick to point out that the cameras do not record private property or use facial recognition or license plate reading technology.

The video is stored on the device and erased every five days if not downloaded for an investigation.

The smart streetlamps are also not recording audio, Jordon said, although they do have the capability. He said they could be used as part of the gunshot-detection system known as ShotSpotter, but that would be subject to council approval.

While video has been shared with federal agents involved in local task forces, Jordon has assured elected leaders that the footage has never been used to enforce immigration rules.

“This is not a tool to be involved in homeland security as far as border patrol and being involved in enforcing immigration laws outside of our policy,” he said at the June meeting.

Jordon said the streetlamp cameras have been instrumental in helping with dozens of cases, including a sexual assault from November, where a man grabbed a woman from behind at 13th Street and Island Avenue and dragged her into the bushes.

Officers spoke with the victim to create a composite drawing of her attacker, but she was intoxicated at the time of the attack, and the accuracy of the drawing was unclear.

However, streetlamp cameras allowed Detective Carlos Muñoz to track the attacker to a 7-11, where in-store cameras and a credit card purchase helped identify him. Faced with the video, 51-year-old Gary Cushinberry pleaded guilty to felony charges.

“There was zero room for him to, in my opinion, say, ‘That wasn’t me,’ Muñoz said.

Authorities have said the cameras have also proved helpful in traffic cases, where disputes over who’s at fault often go unresolved.

“There are times when we would have said no determination could be made, and we pull up the video and it’s like, wow, very clear,” said Detective Sgt. Timothy Underwood with the traffic unit.

Streetlamp cameras have been crucial in several recent cases where a driver killed a pedestrian, Underwood said.

“I can think of two fatalities where the driver said, ‘I just never saw them. They came out of nowhere,’” he said, “but we watched (the victim) walk up to the intersection, push the signal, wait for the signal, cross in the crosswalk and get taken out. So now you have a manslaughter case.”

Still, critics of such surveillance systems have raised questions about whether potential abuses will outweigh these benefits in the long run. For example, groups such as the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation have pointed out that such systems are vulnerable to hacking.

“We’re seeing government systems becoming subject to ransomware across the country,” said Dave Maass, a senior researcher at EFF. “This is a huge problem.”

If a criminal were to gain access to San Diego’s system it could put everything from government buildings to places of worship at risk, he said.

“You could see what time people are visiting a particular facility, what time they are leaving, what time the security guards come in, what patterns those security guards walk,” Maass said. “Does this reveal stuff about locations that might make them vulnerable? Sure.”

City officials responded to questions about cyber-security by saying that General Electric, the company that installed the equipment, has a “four-layer security approach that includes data encryption, cloud storage and user authorization and authentication.”

The city currently has rolled out about 3,200 streetlamp cameras and expects to have about 4,200 by next summer. General Electric and government officials have promoted the system as the “world’s largest smart city platform.”


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune