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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Mayor’s ‘Safer San Francisco’ proposal spurs concern over increased police surveillance

"How many of us really want police drone whizzing by us?" asked Jonathan Simon, a criminal law expert.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s new proposal to increase police power in the city is receiving backlash from some progressive groups.

Breed’s proposal, dubbed “Safer San Francisco,” will loosen restrictions on when police can chase suspects by car, give police greater ability to use surveillance technology and reduce officers' paperwork requirements.

Specifically, the proposal will allow officers to install and use publicly owned surveillance cameras and deploy drones to apprehend suspects, as well as allow the San Francisco Police Department to test other new tech without completing a Board of Supervisors vetting process. Officers will also be allowed to use their cruisers to chase people suspected of theft or auto burglary.

Jonathan Simon, the Lance Robbins Professor of Criminal Justice Law at UC Berkeley, said that he was troubled by the broad language of the proposal.

“You’re really opening up a can of potentially troubling changes in how ordinary life is experienced. How many of us really want police drones whizzing by us? This should not be framed uniquely as a crime control issue, it’s really a quality of life issue to have this kind of surveillance,” Simon said.

Simon explained that there was already a huge amount of surveillance in people’s everyday lives through private cameras, and that the use of drones could violate California citizens’ constitutionally protected privacy rights.

Simon also said there’s “lots of risk” to police and pedestrians if the police are allowed to chase more suspects by car, especially when most suspects fleeing by vehicle can be tracked down with their license plate. 

Still, Simon acknowledged that the proposal would undoubtedly be popular with some voters, noting that the mayor was under pressure to appear tough on crime amid increases in car break-ins, overdoses and property crime.

“I just wish I had more confidence that these types of measures would make a substantial difference in public safety,” Simon said.

Derick Morgan, senior policy associate at The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland non-profit organization, blasted the proposal in a statement.

“At a time when the world is awakening to the need for transformative change in our criminal legal system, Mayor Breed’s policing proposal perpetuates cycles of incarceration and harm for Black and Brown people, and undermines the progress that organizers and families have made to achieve a more just and equitable system,” Morgan said. “This proposal weakens community oversight of police in San Francisco and increases surveillance and over-policing of Black and Brown communities.”

Morgan said that the city should instead prioritize investments in community-based alternatives, such as better mental health services, drug treatment programs, affordable housing, better pay and education.

“That is how we create safer communities,” he said.

The proposal is the latest in a series of pro-law enforcement moves by Breed. The mayor has pushed for more money for SFPD and instructed police to aggressively crack down on open-air drug dealing in the city earlier this year.

“We need to give our officers the tools necessary to keep our communities safe and not leave them stuck behind a desk when they can be out on the street helping people,” Breed said in a Tuesday statement. “There has been too much focus on adding bureaucracy to the work our officers do and putting up barriers to new technologies that can help improve policing in San Francisco.”

The American Civil Liberties Union slammed Breed’s statement in a tweet.

“What Mayor Breed calls ‘needless bureaucracy’ most would call independent oversight. This measure is targeting guardrails that were established to keep people safe from police abuse, recklessness, and limitless surveillance,” the tweet read.

Supervisors Matt Dorsey, Catherine Stefani and Joel Engardio appeared alongside Breed when she announced the measure at Alamo Square on Tuesday. No supervisors have spoken out against the bill at this point.

“This is a smart-on-crime approach that will remove needless inefficiencies and enable our police officers to do their jobs more effectively,” Dorsey said in a statement. “Especially in this time of unprecedented police understaffing, San Francisco needs the flexibility to use cameras and surveillance technology to protect public safety in the same way other California counties do. This ballot measure will streamline onerous restrictions on police officers’ use of cameras, and help hold criminals and drug dealers accountable. It will make San Francisco safer and it will help save lives.”

When asked for comment, Board President Aaron Peskin, and Supervisors Myrna Melgar and Rafael Mandelman said they had not yet seen a full copy of the proposal and would not comment on it specifically at this time. Earlier this year, Mandelman partnered with San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins to request the city’s technology oversight body to develop a new policy allowing the use of unmanned drones to catch stunt drivers.

Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Law, Technology

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