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Bay Area mayors push to reverse police cuts and expand surveillance tools

The mayors of Oakland and San Francisco once championed diverting police funding to social services. Now they both want to hire more officers and give police more tools to investigate crimes.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — More than a year after moving to cut and redistribute police funding in the wake of racial justice protests, two city leaders in Northern California are now pushing to hire more officers, crack down on crime and expand police surveillance powers.

The mayors of San Francisco and its across-the-bay neighbor Oakland recently unveiled proposals to increase police presence in their cities and broaden law enforcement’s ability to use surveillance tools, such as license plate readers and access to private security camera networks.

The proposals come as both cities struggle with an increase in homicides and violent crime and a recent spate of brazen robberies targeting high-end retailers and cannabis dispensaries.  

On Tuesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced a plan to flood the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, an area notorious for open-air drug use and drug dealing, with more officers. She urged the city’s board of supervisors to increase the police overtime budget so more officers can be sent there.

The mayor also called for a crackdown on public drug dealing and drug use, unlicensed street vendors and changes to a law that limits police access to private security camera networks.

Across the bay in Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf recently asked for city legislators to approve money to hire more officers. The request came after department staffing fell below 678, the threshold the city must meet to keep collecting a special tax approved by voters in a 2014.

On Tuesday, Schaaf penned a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom calling for the state to continue sending California Highway Patrol officers to enforce traffic laws in Oakland and to install license-plate readers around highway ramps and major city arteries. The request comes amid a recent spike in homicides, car jackings and robberies in Oakland this year.

“Creating a network of vehicle recognition cameras will assist with providing investigative tools, in real-time, that will both help prevent violence and solve violent crime,” Schaaf wrote.

Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland’s privacy advisory commission and director of the non-profit watchdog group Secure Justice, blasted the surveillance technology as an ineffective tool for combatting crime that threatens innocent drivers' privacy.

“You have to track the driving histories of millions of people to get four, five or six cases,” Hofer said. “It’s not something that’s healthy for democracy that we track innocent people and put them into a police database.”

Hofer cited studies showing license-plate readers are ineffective in deterring crime or helping police retrieve stolen vehicles. He also noted that Oakland has a history of failing to comply with policies that protect citizens’ privacy.

In September, Hofer sued the city for failing to turn over requested documents to the privacy commission on license plate readers. The suit also seeks a court order that will force the city to stop keeping license plate data longer than six months as required under its use policy.

On recent moves to increase police funding and staffing, Hofer pointed to studies that show hiring more officers has no effect on violent crime rates. If the city wants to tackle violent crime, he said it should focus its resources on combatting gun violence instead of having officers respond to less urgent situations, which could be handled by civilian employees or social service workers.

“It’s a lack of vision,” Hofer said. “We’re just doing the same things we’ve been doing for the last few decades and increasing police contact with folks, and mass incarceration has not improved public safety.”

Back in San Francisco, Mayor Breed is calling for law enforcement to crack down on open-air drug dealing and drug use, a stark reversal from the yearslong status quo in which scenes of desperate people shooting up on sidewalks has become a familiar scene. San Francisco had 712 overdose deaths last year, more than double the 257 people that died from Covid-19.

“We are not giving people a choice anymore,” Breed said Tuesday. “We are not going to just walk by and let someone use in broad daylight in the streets and not give them a choice between going to the location we have identified for them or going to jail.”

Hofer denounced Breed’s proposal as a return to the failed policies of the “war on drugs.”

Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said the neighborhood has largely lacked a robust police presence for the last 40 years. He believes the low level of police visibility has contributed to rampant and unrestrained drug dealing in the neighborhood.

“No one is suggesting that people be arrested for using drugs,” Shaw said. “It’s selling drugs. If you have visibility, dealers are not going to openly deal in front of the police.”

On Tuesday, the mayor and police chief suggested people will be arrested for using drugs in public, despite the unlikelihood that they will face criminal charges. That’s because San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has vowed to prioritize violent crimes and not throw people in jail for selling or possessing small amounts of drugs. Boudin faces a recall election in June organized by critics who claim his policies have made the city less safe.

Boudin’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether his office will prosecute people for using drugs in public.

Breed has also called on police to go after illegal street vendors, something she says will help deter retail theft.

Additionally, the mayor is asking the board of supervisors to amend a surveillance technology law so that police can more easily access security camera footage in emergencies. She said police were prevented from obtaining the footage last month when a flash mob of thieves smashed windows and stole over $1 million in merchandise from high-end retailers, including Luis Vuitton, in the city’s Union Square shopping district.

“We need amendments to clarify that officers are allowed to access these cameras when needed to address critical public safety issues,” Breed said.

Hofer accused the mayor of “misleading the public." He insisted that the law already allows police to access private security camera networks in “exigent circumstances” where people could be killed or seriously injured. He said a "mob of 30 people" armed with dangerous weapons that they use to break windows and threaten retail employees would qualify as an "exigent circumstance."

Last year, the city was sued over the police department’s use of private security cameras to monitor demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd. In a recently filed court document, the protesters claim the department is out of compliance with the city’s surveillance technology law because it never submitted its policy on the use of private security footage to a city oversight board.

The San Francisco Police Department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on whether it has such a policy.

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