La Jolla community meeting explores San Diego police plan to use streetlight technology for surveillance

Representatives of the San Diego Police Department answer questions at a meeting at the La Jolla Recreation Center.
Representatives of the San Diego Police Department answer questions at a meeting at the La Jolla Recreation Center about the department’s plan to use surveillance equipment on streetlights.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The La Jolla Recreation Center hosted the ninth and final community meeting organized by the San Diego Police Department to explain and gather feedback on its new proposal to access 500 streetlight cameras citywide for surveillance as a “public safety device.”

Police also want to add automated license plate readers to that network.

The March 10 meeting was similar to others held last week throughout San Diego’s nine City Council districts.

The Police Department first started accessing images and data available from the city’s 3,000 “Smart Streetlights” in 2018 to help with investigations of cases such as homicides, robberies, burglaries, assaults and sex crimes, SDPD Capt. Jeff Jordon said.

Controversy about the streetlights began in 2019 when it was revealed that the cameras had been put in place three years earlier for city mobility planning purposes without public input. The Police Department’s direct access to them was cut off in 2020 as a result of public concerns about data collection and use, privacy, oversight and transparency.

The department’s new proposal is the first big push for surveillance technology in San Diego since the city approved ordinances last year that specifically set rules governing that kind of technology.

Together, the ordinances are called Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology, or TRUST. One set of rules governs technology use, acquisition, funding, storage and sharing of information. The other created the Privacy Advisory Board and includes holding community meetings to gather public input.

The Smart Streetlight cameras have not been well-maintained over the years and the city would need to install new cameras. If the proposal is approved, it would cost about $4 million for the cameras and automated license plate readers, according to SDPD. The department plans to pay for the program with funds from the city’s general fund and grants.

San Diego Police Department Capt. Jeff Jordon leads a community meeting March 10 at the La Jolla Recreation Center.
San Diego Police Department Capt. Jeff Jordon leads a community meeting March 10 at the La Jolla Recreation Center.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Jordon said the city surveillance regulations require police “to report out on all the technology we have that could be deemed surveillance technology as defined by the ordinance.”

He said the local ordinance is unique in that “it covers hardware, software and the data coming from both. … We reviewed around 200 types of technology that we thought could apply [and] whittled it down to about 90 or so that we know are impacted by the ordinance. We are proposing … to bring back the Smart Streetlights, not as … an urban planning device but as a public safety device. The proposal is to bring them back with video in public spaces and adding license plate reader technology to it.”

The technology would be placed all around the city. Many of the planned locations are near freeways and along thoroughfares.

At the La Jolla meeting, resident Tom Brady asked why only two locations are proposed inside La Jolla, both near the La Jolla Parkway/Torrey Pines Road intersection known as “The Throat.”

Another location in the La Jolla area is planned for La Jolla Village Drive near Westfield UTC mall.

Jordon said that “when we broke down the criteria … we looked at where the most violence was happening. There is crime here, but not with the volume of other areas.”

La Jolla Village Merchants Association Executive Director Jodi Rudick asked for cameras in the Village business district.

Some have long criticized surveillance technologies for disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities.

Of the 500 proposed locations in the Police Department’s plan, San Diego’s council District 8, which is more than 70 percent Latino, would have 111 Smart Streetlights and automated license plate readers, or about eight per 10,000 people.

By comparison, District 1, which includes La Jolla and Pacific Beach, would have 21, or 1.22 per 10,000 people.

Jordon said the department came up with the locations by using crime data and input from investigators in units such as homicide, robbery, sex crimes and gangs.

“When we looked at this first deployment, we looked at where we could make the most impact on the communities suffering from violence and gun violence,” Jordon said.

He said the department is open to moving the technology if community members have concerns about certain locations.

An example of surveillance technology the San Diego Police Department wants on 500 streetlights around the city.
(Screenshot by Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

He said early criticism of locations came from many in the Muslim community who argued they were placed too close to mosques, and reproductive-rights advocates were concerned that they were placed too close to health providers’ offices where services like abortions are performed.

However, Jordon said, the latest iteration of the technology allows for “digital masking” to cover areas that are within range of the cameras but not in the public right of way. Also, the technology as proposed does not include facial recognition.

The automated license plate readers provide no information about the driver of the vehicle, Jordon said. The database of license plate numbers and car information would be owned by the city and could be accessed only on a “need to know, right to know” basis. “Officers need to put their name in, ID, password and the investigation number and why they are looking at it,” Jordon said.

The current proposal is for the data to be retained for 30 days and then deleted, he said. Further, he said, steps are being taken to prevent hacking and manipulation, and officers who will have access to the information must undergo training.

Jordon said the system cannot be used to conduct random searches, traffic enforcement, facial recognition, gunshot detection or predictive policing.

“Technology in public spaces is essential in crime fighting,” he said. “When you combine ALPR and cameras, we believe it can be very powerful and helpful for the purposes for which we are looking to implement it. We also know there is a balance. There are some that will never agree to this proposal, that are fearful about privacy rights [being violated] and I understand that. We’re not looking to convince everyone that this is for them. My job is to get feedback … and present it to the Privacy Advisory Board and City Council members that will decide if this is right for San Diego. If it is approved, we will be in compliance with the law.”

Still, La Jolla resident Chris McCann was cautious about the program.

“I hear you say you aren’t going to use facial recognition or that you are only going to retain the data for 30 days … but why should anyone take ... at face value any guarantee you are making today about the access policy, what kind of crimes this will be used for and all the other self-governing policies you are talking about?” McCann asked Jordon.

Jordon responded that those issues would be outlined in a contract the City Council would approve and that officers would be held to the terms of the contract.

La Jolla resident Catharine Douglass, who spoke in support of the proposal, asked about the timeline for implementing it.

Jordon said the Police Department will take a Surveillance Impact Report to the Privacy Advisory Board, which has up to 90 days to render a decision. The report — including comments from the community and information including the purpose of the technology, where it will be located, how much it will cost and how the data will be safeguarded — was going to be presented to the board on Wednesday, March 15, but that has been postponed.

From there, the proposal would go to applicable City Council committees and the full council. The plan would be subject to annual review.

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— The San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.