San Francisco police used surveillance to monitor riots. Now they’re being sued for “spying” on Black Lives Matter.

San Francisco police used surveillance to monitor riots. Now
they’re being sued for “spying” on Black Lives Matter. 1

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — In the Spring and early Summer, the San Francisco Police Department had real-time access to a camera network while riots were taking place. 

Now activists have filed a lawsuit claiming the police department violated a local ordinance. 

In late May and early June, the San Francisco Police Department had utilized a network of 400 private surveillance cameras, operated by the Union Square Business Improvement District, and Black Lives Matter is now claiming they did it to spy on them. 

Attorney Matt Cagle of the ACLU of Northern California said in a video statement on Wednesday, October 7th:

“This surveillance invaded protesters’ privacy and chilled them from organizing or participating in future protests,” 

According Courthouse News, lead plaintiff Hope Williams, a 30-year-old racial justice activist and San Francisco resident, claims the police department’s actions violated the city’s surveillance technology law passed in 2019, which requires the police to seek approval from Board of Supervisors before acquiring or using surveillance technology.

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Williams said in a video statement Wednesday:

“I am a plaintiff in this lawsuit because I want to defend the rights of protesters and hold the police accountable for breaking the law,” 

Due to a clause in the law that allows temporarily use of surveillance technology when responding to “exigent circumstances”, the San Francisco Police Department feels as though they did nothing wrong. 

Courthouse News explains that in order to comply with the “exigent circumstances” provision, the department must stop using the technology within seven days or whenever the extenuating circumstances end, whichever is sooner.

It also requires the department to delete any data not relevant to an investigation and to submit a written report to the Board of Supervisors within 60 days.

Police Chief William “Bill” Scott said in a letter to the board on August 5th, that the department requested footage from the business district’s video cameras to investigate incidents of vandalism, looting and rioting that occurred during protests on May 31.

The police department also used live feed camera access from May 31st to June 6th in order to monitor areas of riots in the event of illegal activity. 

Scott said the department stopped using the technology within seven days and did not retain any irrelevant data or disclose data to third parties as required by the ordinance.

In a follow-up response to the board on Sept. 2, Scott said seven police officers looked at camera footage provided to the department, and one officer accessed the remote link for the live camera feed, but only to test it in case monitoring became necessary, Courthouse News said.

Scott wrote:

“SFPD Homeland Security Unit (HSU) requested access to the Union Sq. BID cameras via a remote live access link on May 31, 2020, which was the day after the initial violence began,

“The remote link was requested by HSU to access only if the arson, violence and looting continued. The criminal activity did not continue in the BID service area, subsequently HSU did not monitor any activity, including first amendment activities, through the remote live access link provided by the BID.”

Scott also revealed the department also requested access to the live feed on July 4.

Williams and two other plaintiffs claim in their 10-page lawsuit, that the city’s use of surveillance technology on protesters does not qualify for the ordinance’s limited exception for exigent circumstances, which is defined as “an emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person.”

Regarding the camera network, the plaintiffs say in their complaint:

“There was no emergency involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to a person that required SFPD’s immediate use” 

Using the typical card that all protesters use, the plaintiffs are accusing the city of violating their First Amendment rights, and is claiming that the risk of future access to surveillance technology:

“makes them afraid to participate in future protests and chills the exercise of their First Amendment rights.”

This sounds to me like people who want to become violent, loot, and cause destruction, all while not getting caught on camera doing it. 

The plaintiffs are seeking a court order forbidding the city from acquiring, borrowing or using a private camera network without prior approval by the Board of Supervisors.

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Here is the original story Law Enforcement Today brought you on the department coming under fire for using the video surveillance. 

San Francisco, CA- Officers of the San Francisco Police Department are facing backlash, and are being accused of violating a city ordinance by watching protests and demonstrations unfold in real time, through a network of high-tech surveillance cameras.

According to the Examiner, Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation show that police secured live access to hundreds of cameras in the district to monitor protests for potential violence over a week-long period starting at the end of May

It has been common practice for years that officers request access to the cameras and footage to investigate crimes after they have occurred. To have live access however, is a violation of a local law, that prohibits the use of new surveillance technology without first receiving approval from the Board of Supervisors.

Dave Maass, a researcher with EFF said in a statement:

“What we have here is our worst fears confirmed, which is that something that was supposed to be used conservatively is now being used broadly,” 

He went on to say:

“This is exactly the sort of thing that the ordinance was trying to curb.”

The main concern over live camera access, is a blatant violation of citizens first amendment rights. 

Police first requested live access to the cameras on May 31, the morning after violent and unruly protests began, which included looting and vandalism, prompting Mayor London Breed to issue a nightly curfew.

Police Commissioner John Hamasaki also shared his concerns about the fact that the live camera access was violating the city ordinance, along with the departments policy on policing First Amendment activities.

Hamasaki said:

“Each time we allow law enforcement to cross the line from legitimate investigation needs to indiscriminate surveillance of political protesters, we take one step closer to becoming a police state,” 

In essence, the policy states that in order for live camera access to be granted, there needs to be a situation of imminent danger, such as an active shooter, or a criminal activity that could result in bodily injury or large sums of money in damages. 


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