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The description of the San Diego Police Department’s “Operation Secure San Diego” is pretty chilling. The reality is pretty hilarious.
The San Diego Police Department since 2010 has been trying to build a surveillance network with the ominous title “Operation Secure San Diego.”
The idea was for the department to have access to public and private cameras all over the city to deter crime, collect evidence, provide a live feed of crime scenes and identify “questionable individuals or conduct.”
It’s the type of government surveillance program that could either strike you as a logical application of technology to keep San Diegans safe, or an intrusion of basic privacy that terrifies you to participate in our modern world.
Four years later, the program makes better fodder for Stewart and Colbert than Snowden and Orwell.
SDPD says it has access to cameras at 41 addresses around the city as part of Operation Secure San Diego.
Half of those are useless. The cameras on site at 20 addresses use software that’s incompatible with the department’s operating system.
And one of the system’s benefits SDPD highlighted most — that officers could see live footage of a crime scene as they respond, potentially revolutionizing responses to serious situations like active shooters — is functionally nonexistent.
Again, an unforeseen technological hurdle is to blame.
As anyone who tried to watch a YouTube video on an out-of-date iPhone can attest, you need a 4G connection to get anything useful. All 500 of the department’s black-and-white cruisers have a 3G connection.
So, even for those 20 sites where SDPD can access a security feed, they’re essentially useless to any responding officer.
Maybe that’s why Sgt. Jeff Jordon, vice president of the SDPD’s union who used to work in Mid-City, said he’d never even heard of the program until last weekend.
“I concern myself with the things we use every day that don’t work,” he said. “I’m not going to concern myself with things I don’t even know about that also don’t work.”
An Existential Crisis
You can’t say the department was secretive about Operation Secure San Diego.
U-T San Diego covered the program when it got its first participant with downtown’s Hotel Indigo. Two years later, SDPD, the chief of the San Diego Unified School District’s police force and then-Mayor Bob Filner held a press conference urging the city and school district to expand the program even more.
A week after the Newtown, Conn., shooting, Filner said Operation Secure San Diego was already making the city safer, and that its expansion to the entire school district was essential.
“The system is working,” he said. “We want to assure again in the wake of Connecticut our parents that we are doing everything, using all the latest technology, all the latest equipment, to have a better sense of what is going on in our schools.”
SDPD assistant police chief Boyd Long, the program’s pseudo mastermind who has since retired to become vice president of security at Valley View Casino, said at the press conference that the program included 100 cameras, mostly downtown, and would soon include 70 sets of cameras in schools. He encouraged private businesses to get on board.
“Our goal today is to not only partner with the school system, but also to get the message out that Operation Secure San Diego is a very robust system, it has checks and balances associated with it, for those private organizations that choose to participate,” he said.
That press conference generated another wave of attention. Multiple TV channels ran demonstrations of officers accessing live feeds of security cameras in their cars. In a 2012 departmental review before the City Council, Operation Secure San Diego was listed as an “ongoing violent reduction effort.”
It’s strange, then, that after all that promotion, SDPD as of two weeks ago wasn’t even sure whether Operation Secure San Diego existed at all.
In response to a public records request, the department said it didn’t have to tell us anything about the program because it was related to security procedures. And it gave us a list of 41 addresses that are part of the program. And it said the program isn’t operational (yes, all three of those things are contradictory).
“Operation San Diego (sic) is still in the development stages and has not been implemented,” the department said. (The response also referred to the program as “Operation Safe San Diego.”)
So, if the program isn’t operational, what is the list of 41 addresses?
“It is operational, it just isn’t 100 percent operational,” clarified Mark Herring, a department spokesman.
The 41 addresses are all the places that have filled out forms to give feed access to the department. But the department didn’t anticipate the software compatibility issues it ran into trying to get cameras from different manufacturers to be part of the same program. The department can’t access cameras at MTS transit stations, for instance. For security reasons, the department won’t say which 20 locations have cameras it can actually access. (This is the same list of addresses given in response to a separate records request made by local resident Jeff Hammett and reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.)
SDPD IT staff and crime analysis officers are still working out the technological hurdles.
“We’re updating that list on a weekly basis as new forms come in,” Herring said. “I wouldn’t say the program is actively getting people on board. They’re doing software updates all the time, but the simple fact is every camera seems to be a bit different.”
Likewise, the problem with 3G computers in officers’ cars caught the department by surprise.
“The feed will show up, but it’s slow,” Herring said. “It hasn’t been as successful as we would have liked. The drivers’ infrastructure isn’t up to date.”
He said the department is getting 4G systems into 150 cars this year, and is looking to upgrade the rest of the fleet over the next two fiscal years. But those are upgrades they’d be looking to make regardless of Operation Secure San Diego, he said.
The program hasn’t had any dedicated budgeting, Herring said. Any work done on software fixes or outreach to get more cameras involved has been part of employees’ existing hours.
Because of the technological hurdles, the department has taken a passive role in expanding the program.
And no outside companies have any contracts to work on the program either, Herring said.
Two private security companies, GMI Integrated Facility Solutions and Layer3 Security Services, distributed press releases when the program launched, encouraging their clients to make their feeds available to the department. Neither company is directly involved, Herring said.
Layer3 President Dario Santana confirmed he has no formal relationship with the program, and said he heard about it from Long and thought it was a good idea, and wanted to let his clients know it existed.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to leverage resources that were there to make police more effective, a force multiplier basically,” he said. A representative from GMI didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Essentially, SDPD has built the framework for a vast surveillance network. But by all appearances, the framework hasn’t amounted to much so far, because it hasn’t been built out, supported or maintained.
The department says Operation Secure San Diego may be having a great effect reducing crime. But it can’t show whether that’s true.
Given all its limitations, and the fact that a veteran officer wasn’t even aware the program existed, has Operation Secure San Diego managed to produce any results? Has there been a demonstrable trade off in safety or crime prevention as a result of this surveillance network? Can it identify even a single incident that Operation Secure San Diego helped solve?
The SDPD does not have a specific statistical tracking and feedback for Operation Secure San Diego as it relates to its success in a particular incident. The cameras may have been of great use to officers and investigators during a particular incident, however, without the ability to specifically track this, I cannot give you details of an incident.
On the privacy front, the department said the feeds associated with the program fall under the city’s existing administrative regulations outlining employee use of technology.
And while the department and program participants have stressed that security feeds are given to responding officers to watch live, not to record and archive, that isn’t clear in the department’s initial call for participants, which said the department would “view, record and document for evidentiary purposes” video systems that volunteered to take part.
The state of the department’s pilot program with the school district, which Filner and Long had hoped to expand, is also in flux.
Herbert Hoover High School and Monroe Clark Middle School were the schools in the initial pilot. Long said they hoped to expand it to cover 70 sets of cameras in city schools. Right now, just Hoover and Monroe appear on the program’s address list.
“I don’t believe the pilot program is active, but we still have those cameras,” Herring said. “The pilot program didn’t go away. It just fell into new hands.”
A memorandum of understanding between SDPD and the district’s police department updated in May of this year — obtained by Hammett in a public records request — says the district maintains over 1,100 cameras to improve safety and security, and SDPD dispatchers and officers have been granted viewing rights when “reacting to crimes in progress” or other safety issues on school grounds.
But that’s different than Operation Secure San Diego, department spokesman Lt. Kevin Mayer said. The school district maintains the right to limit access to those cameras, and has final approval of SDPD’s use of them.
“Operation Secure San Diego has two schools that are part of an ongoing pilot program,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Jeff Jordon’s title within the police department.