City Council signs off on San Diego Police Department’s smart streetlights network

An example of surveillance technology the San Diego Police Department wants on 500 streetlights around the city.
(Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The city would become the largest in the country to use cameras and automated license plate readers as part of a single network. Three locations are planned in and adjacent to La Jolla.


The San Diego City Council approved the Police Department’s smart streetlights proposal Aug. 1, which all but ensures the controversial network of 500 cameras and automated license plate readers affixed to streetlights will be put to future use.

The department made the proposal in March. Once the technology is in place, San Diego would be the largest city in the country to use cameras and plate readers as part of a single network, according to police officials, who have hailed the surveillance system as a force multiplier and crime-fighting tool.

The cameras would be spread across the city, with two locations proposed inside La Jolla, both near the La Jolla Parkway/Torrey Pines Road intersection known as “The Throat.” Another is planned for La Jolla Village Drive near Westfield UTC mall.

The highest concentrations would be in communities such as Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, Otay Mesa, Hillcrest, North Park and downtown San Diego.

Police have 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.

The department says it is open to moving the technology if community concerns arise about certain locations.

The council voted on the streetlight cameras and the automated license plate readers separately. Seven members voted in favor of the cameras, with Monica Montgomery Steppe and Sean Elo-Rivera voting against. Six members voted for the license plate readers, with Montgomery Steppe, Elo-Rivera and Vivian Moreno voting no.

The San Diego Public Safety Committee voted July 19 to support the smart streetlights proposal, about a month after the city’s volunteer Privacy Advisory Board voted against it.

The City Council’s decision authorizes the Police Department to seek contracts with two companies to provide the technology — Ubiquia, a telecommunications company, for the cameras and Flock Safety for the license plate readers, officials said. The network can be installed after the contracts have been approved.

SDPD has estimated the cost of the cameras and automated license plate readers at $4 million. The department has said it plans to pay for the program through grants and the city’s general fund.

“The San Diego Police Department has put a great amount of time and effort into ensuring the City Council had the information they needed to put victims first today by approving our use of smart streetlights and ALPR technology,” Police Chief David Nisleit said in a statement. “SDPD will be working quickly to draft a contract and bring it back for council approval as soon as possible so we can put this technology to work solving crimes.”

The department reiterated that the technology would not be used to record sound, nor will it be outfitted with facial recognition technology.

The cameras would be in public places where people have no expectation of privacy, and the department’s policy expressly forbids that the technology be used for immigration enforcement or to target groups based solely on characteristics such as race, religion or social views.

Department officials have said the camera feed would not be monitored in real time but rather would be accessed as an investigative tool after a crime has been committed.

Similarly, the department says the license plate readers would be used for “official law enforcement purposes,” such as when cars are stolen or wanted in connection with particular crimes. The technology would scan license plates as vehicles drive by and detect whether the number can be found in any law enforcement databases accessed by the system. If the system gets a hit, the software would alert the department’s dispatch center.

The license plate readers provide no information about the driver of the vehicle, police say.

Dozens of people spoke about the proposal at the council meeting, some in support but most against.

Those in favor praised the network’s potential to help solve crimes. The supporters included people whose family members had been victims of violence.

Speakers who opposed the technology said they’re worried that the surveillance tools would invade people’s privacy and lead to overpolicing in communities of color. Many said the Police Department was not as transparent or collaborative as it could have been while crafting the policies that will govern the use of the technology.

“This is setting a precedent for mistrust in the council, mistrust in these emerging technologies and mistrust in the kinds of planning and design we’re going to be putting into how do we build out our city in the future,” said Lilly Irani, an associate professor at UC San Diego in La Jolla who specializes in technology ethics and is part of a coalition that helped craft the city’s new surveillance ordinance.

That ordinance, passed in September, requires technologies like smart streetlights to be vetted before they’re put to use.

This is the second time in recent years that City Council members have approved a network of smart streetlights.

In 2016, the council signed off on a $30 million project that pledged to use 3,000 energy-saving smart streetlights to assess traffic and parking patterns throughout the city. What the public wouldn’t know for years is that the technology came with cameras that could be accessed by police.

The resulting outcry — based on concerns about privacy and equity — led San Diego to shut down the network in 2020 and fueled the creation of the surveillance ordinance.

Before losing access to the technology, police had used footage from the smart streetlights to investigate hundreds of cases, including 56 homicides or attempted homicides, 55 robberies or burglaries and 55 assaults involving a weapon.

Police officials also accessed streetlights 35 times to gather evidence against demonstrators suspected of committing crimes during protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020.

San Diego’s new ordinance requires city departments to disclose their surveillance technologies and compile reports outlining how they are used and their impact on communities, including conducting meetings to gather community input about all of the more than 300 surveillance tools that need to be evaluated.

A community meeting about the smart streetlights proposal was held in La Jolla in March.

The information from the reports and meetings then makes its way to the Privacy Advisory Board and subsequently to the City Council.

The council voted unanimously July 18 to extend the September deadline for completing the evaluations by three years.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.