With new technologies come new opportunities for police to take down the bad guys more efficiently – and new challenges in keeping basic freedoms intact for the rest of us. Here are a few of the ways we’ve seen San Diego Police embrace or shy away from some key advancements.


The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police need search warrants before pawing through data on cell phones of people they arrest. One of the cases that sparked that conclusion had local roots: David Riley was pulled over in San Diego in 2009 for having expired tags on his Lexus. After discovering Riley was driving with a suspended license, SDPD Officer Charles Dunnigan impounded Riley’s car. During an inventory search, Dunnigan and another officer found loaded guns in the vehicle, and upon searching his phone, hints of gang affiliation. From the court’s ruling:

The officer accessed information on the phone and noticed that some words (presumably in text messages or a contacts list) were preceded by the letters “CK” — a label that, he believed, stood for “Crip Killers,” a slang term for members of the Bloods gang.

At the police station about two hours after the arrest, a detective specializing in gangs further examined the contents of the phone. The detective testified that he “went through” Riley’s phone “looking for evidence, because … gang members will often video themselves with guns.” … Although there was “a lot of stuff” on the phone, particular files that “caught [the detective’s] eye” included videos of young men sparring while someone yelled encouragement using the moniker “Blood.” … The police also found photographs of Riley standing in front of a car they suspected had been involved in a shooting a few weeks earlier.

Riley was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, and the California Supreme Court upheld the search of his smartphone after his arrest. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision reverses that ruling.

The decision might make things tougher for officers. Chief Justice John Roberts said the huge amount of data in smartphones deserved protection, and that cell phones contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect of [people’s] lives – from the mundane to the intimate.” Roberts wrote:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life,” … The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.

SDPD Lt. Kevin Mayer said after the ruling that the department is preparing an order to send to all personnel, discussing the requirements for searching cell phones. “Obtaining search warrants is an investigative tool and cell phones will simply be incorporated into this process,” Mayer wrote in an email.


Despite San Diego’s status as an emerging hub for the drone technology, and even though the Los Angeles and Tijuana police departments are dipping their toes in the water, SDPD says it isn’t interested in using drones for patrol or gathering evidence – for now:

“Small, inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles could be very useful to the San Diego Police Department in certain circumstances,” said San Diego Police Lt. Kevin Mayer, a police spokesman. “As an example, a small drone would work very well if we wanted to look into the second-story window of a building where there was an armed and barricaded suspect.  And with no high ground nearby it might be the only way to see inside.”

That doesn’t mean San Diego police are looking to get into the drone business just yet. Mayer said San Diego police are waiting on more regulatory clarity from the FAA, state legislators and the courts, and want to discuss potential uses with the community and city leaders before they’d give them a try.

Body Cameras

The department’s on track to introduce 75 body cameras for its officers in the Central, Mid-City and Southeastern divisions, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman told the City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee last week. The chief ironed out the finer points of SDPD’s planned policies, including the gray area of recording in residences. From City News Service:

“Private citizens have a reasonable expectation to privacy in their homes,” Zimmerman said. “However, when an officer is lawfully present inside a home, such as on a warrant, consent or exigent circumstances as examples — in the course of the officer’s official duties — there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The chief said officers will not be required to inform citizens that they are being recorded, but should acknowledge it when asked. They will also not be required to stop recording if a citizen makes a demand, she said.

Officers won’t be allowed to record non-work behavior in some station facilities, doctor examinations, peaceful demonstrations or victims and witnesses of some crimes. Zimmerman said domestic violence victims – “who often quickly recant their statements,” according to CNS – should be recorded.

“We anticipate going live Monday,” Mayer confirmed by email.

Kellen Russoniello of the ACLU pointed out some potential abuses or privacy concerns in an op-ed for us earlier this year. Zimmerman and other proponents of the technology have pointed to its success in driving down complaints against officers. Our Fact Check found that to be true.

There’s still the issue of what to do with all that data once SDPD have the recorded exchanges. Voice of San Diego was shot down when we requested recent footage. That poses a big question going forward: How useful could the cameras be at reassuring the community about serious police incidents when no one’s allowed to see what they capture?

Facial Recognition

SDPD is also taking part in a SANDAG-coordinated program to allow county law enforcement to use facial recognition. As of November, SDPD had the second most devices prepped to ID suspects. The Center for Investigative Reporting laid out the details:

The Tactical Identification System, coordinated by the San Diego Association of Governments, matches images taken by officers in the field with databases of about 348,000 San Diego County arrestees. The system itself has nearly 1.4 million booking photos because many people have multiple mug shots on record.

At the time, Complex magazine voiced some trepidation about the consequences of law enforcement using the technology:

The San Diego police’s uses for facial recognition only seem to be deepening the alienation of those drawn into the American legal system, ensuring they will never be able to build new identities separate from all their past selves. The use of FaceFirst’s tool is authorized during any “traditional police-civilian encounters,” a sufficiently vague description that ensures individual prejudice will be able to steer the process.

Last week, Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, seconded concerns about prejudicial targeting.

For example, we’ve seen that in San Diego, law enforcement officers are able to stop people on the street and take a picture of them, using a Samsung tablet and put that picture into a facial recognition database. It’s unclear what rules are in place to prevent the misuse of that technology. Are law enforcement officers stopping people for a legitimate law enforcement reason, or are they stopping people because you have an African American or a Latino person in a wealthy neighborhood and you don’t know why that person is there?

SDPD has already been struggling to reform its policies to prevent and address racial profiling. Check out what the data can tell us, and early takeaways from Zimmerman’s town hall meetings on the issue.

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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