Private Surveillance Cameras Help SF Cops Catch Crooks

by | May 8, 2018

Merchant Program Grows from Six to 350 Video Cameras

New video surveillance cameras managed by a merchant group is helping San Francisco’s police force identify and arrest criminal suspects.

According to a new report in the San Francisco Chronicle, the network of privately owned outdoor cameras rapidly expanded due to a spike in property crimes in the city’s downtown. The video surveillance camera program first launched in 2012 by the Union Square Improvement District as a pilot program. It started with six privately owned cameras around San Francisco’s Union Square. Today, the program has grown into a network of 350 cameras sharing footage with police. It’s a partnership the business organization hopes to continue to develop.

Video Program Reportedly Helped with 225 Arrests

At this point, the video camera feeds are not being monitored and are not used to prevent crime. But footage is provided to police upon request after a crime is reported.

Karin Flood, the group’s executive director, said they’ve received over 750 requests for footage from the police from January 2015 to March 2018. She asserted that the footage helped police make 225 arrests in the area. But the San Francisco police couldn’t confirm that estimate because they do not keep records of their use of video camera footage to help solve crimes.

City prosecutors, public defenders and private citizens also have requested video recordings of crimes from the group’s cameras. The group allows access “in most cases,” Flood said.

Surveillance Program Expanding to Other Neighborhoods

The program first started in the central upscale shopping and hotel district known as Union Square. But it has grown to encompass the nearby Tenderloin neighborhood, a transitional area with high crime rates. Talks are underway to build out the surveillance partnership to the city’s Fisherman’s Wharf area, a popular tourist destination.

Troy Campbell, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, said, “There is a growing desire among business owners to contribute to solving crime using modern technology.” He added that most businesses have video cameras inside their shops but not outside facing the street. “So, you are not going to know what car they got into,” he said. He added that most of the cameras businesses currently have in use are outdated and not capable of picking up enough details.

Crime Now a Greater Concern Than Privacy

Low-quality video footage was one of the problems encountered when San Francisco first tried to create a city-owned and operated video surveillance program in 2005. The program installed video cameras in high crime areas. But the effort was doomed by lack of funds, poor oversight and low-quality footage. It resulted in few arrests and complaints from privacy advocates. It was quickly discontinued.

Now over a dozen years later, the world has become a more public place. With the proliferation of mobile phone cameras and social media posts, people have become more accustomed the presence of video surveillance cameras.

A spokesperson for the San Francisco police said video provided to them by the private sector frequently provides the department with useful images of crimes and suspects.

“Surveillance cameras are becoming more and more common in San Francisco and in our daily lives,” said Sgt. Michael Andraychak.

San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim said that while she is mindful of privacy concerns, “residents deserve to feel safe in their neighborhoods.” She said that the footage in the Tenderloin neighborhood has led to arrests in multiple homicides.

To date, the Union Square group has raised over $3 million in grant funds. They have received funding from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. They have shared $350,000 in grant money with community organizations trying to improve the Tenderloin and adjacent Central Market Street areas. Part of the money is used for staff to manage the camera program and coordinate with police.

“A clean and safe environment brings new businesses to the area and keeps visitors coming back,” the group’s website states.

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