San Diego considering cameras for Point La Jolla as surveillance ordinance moves forward

A sign along the concrete wall that lines Point La Jolla directs people away from the bluffs.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

With the San Diego City Council voting recently to approve a surveillance ordinance, attention is being turned to installation of camera equipment in city parks, including La Jolla’s Scripps Park and Point La Jolla.

The surveillance equipment is intended to help the city meet the terms of a coastal development permit granted by the California Coastal Commission for the annual closure of Point La Jolla during sea lion pupping season. Point La Jolla is a rocky area between La Jolla Cove beach and Boomer Beach where sea lions go on land to rest and give birth.

The Coastal Commission voted unanimously April 8 to approve San Diego’s request for a permit to close Point La Jolla to the public during pupping season but expanded the proposed closure area to include most of Boomer Beach and the closure period to six months (May 1 through Oct. 31) from the proposed 3½ months (May 25 to Sept. 15). The permit is in effect for at least seven years.

The Coastal Commission also called for creation of a monitoring plan and asked the city to consider adopting a local rule about human harassment of sea lions for rangers to enforce and to explore how nighttime harassment would be handled.

At the time, San Diego Parks & Recreation Department Assistant Director Karen Dennison said the city was considering “a surveillance ordinance that has to do with all equipment that records visual imagery as well as audio. That is being evaluated by the City Council and the mayor’s office, and that will have a profound effect on our ability to place this type of equipment at all our park sites.”

That ordinance moved forward July 18 when the City Council approved regulations to govern the city’s use of surveillance technology (council members will need to vote on the ordinance a second time before it can be implemented).

With the surveillance ordinance going ahead, city spokesman Tim Graham said the Parks & Recreation Department is “evaluating all potential sites for installation of new cameras throughout the city’s park system, including Point La Jolla, in order to prepare a proposal for review by both the appropriate local advisory body and the city’s privacy advisory board.”

A timeline for the proposal was not immediately available.

Some argue that the installation of surveillance equipment would, in addition to meeting the terms of the Coastal Commission permit, help deter nighttime harassment of sea lions and other violations of the closure, as well as provide an educational resource. Sierra Club Seal Society docents have reported seeing people enter the closure area after rangers have left for the day.

Seal Society chairwoman Robyn Davidoff said the group “welcomes the possibility of a webcam pointing at the sea lion rookery for educational purposes and for increased safety of people and sea lions. Webcams offer the capability for teachers to educate their students about marine mammals real-time. It should be noted that other ... rookeries (harbor seal and elephant seal) in California have live webcams, and local beaches such as Del Mar have webcams facing the beach and ocean.”

San Diego’s surveillance regulations were proposed in 2019 after residents learned the city had installed a network of 3,000 cameras on streetlights three years earlier and that police used the technology to investigate certain types of crimes.

A streetlight camera is pictured in La Jolla in 2019.

Officials say the ordinance is intended to increase transparency and oversight of surveillance technology used by the city. City staff will be required to issue reports about the intended use of such technology, and the City Council will have to decide whether to move forward — but not before the public and the privacy advisory board created earlier this year weigh in.

The council also would be required to reconsider the use of the technology annually.

San Diego Union-Tribune writer David Hernandez contributed to this report.