Activists and San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott got into an impromptu debate Tuesday over the city’s smart streetlight program. / Photo by Jesse Marx
Activists and San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott got into an impromptu debate Tuesday over the city’s smart streetlight program. / Photo by Jesse Marx

A press conference held Tuesday by San Diego city attorney Mara Elliott was meant to call attention to “the crime-solving capabilities” of the city’s smart streetlights, which have proven, she said, to be a “game-changer” when removing “criminals from our streets.” It turned into an impromptu public debate over misinformation and safeguarding privacy rights while publicly recording residents.

Elliott spoke to reporters outside a temporary bridge shelter for the homeless in Sherman Heights, just feet from a memorial for a security guard who was recently shot and killed. Video footage from one of the nearby streetlight cameras, Elliott said, helped police arrest and charge two men with murder.

But the controversy over the streetlights has never been about whether the public wants to catch murderers. Instead, it has centered on what information was offered to the public and city leaders about the extent to which law enforcement would be accessing the technology, and whether that use was fully explained and vetted.

The lingering question is whether city leaders truly understand the power of the technology that they’ve installed across the city and whether there are enough rules in place to ensure that technology isn’t abused.

In late 2016, city staff told City Council members that the smart streetlights would help reduce electricity costs and collect environmental and transportation data that’d be useful to planners and app developers. An outside company was willing to loan the city $30 million to get it going.

After the San Diego Police Department began accessing those cameras to help solve crimes in 2018, two City Council members told Voice of San Diego they were unaware that the program had grown into a tool for law enforcement. They weren’t opposed to cops using the footage in criminal cases, but wished they’d known more upfront, they said.

The materials given to elected officials at the time did make note of the potential law enforcement uses of the smart streetlights. The words “Surveillance” and “Gun Shot Detection” appear, but they’re buried alongside other possible data services, such as “Pedestrian Planning” and “Parking.”

Elliott said Tuesday she is ready to help the City Council if it wants to write new rules. But she also put the onus to weigh these issues back on Council members: “We expect the people who represent you to read the materials before them before they vote on a $30 million contract and to ask questions. And when they do not do that, they are not doing their job.”

Her job, she said, is to provide all the necessary information to make an informed decision, but sometimes what’s important to one Council member differs from another.

“If anybody had any concerns over how $30 million was going to be spent, they should have asked some questions,” she said. “Only now that they’re feeling there’s some public outcry are they backing away and saying that they did not understand what was before them.”

Immediately after Elliott’s press conference ended, a group of activists stepped in front of the cameras to offer their comments and make the case for stronger oversight of surveillance technologies generally, not just the streetlight program.

Last year, the Police Department wrote its own rules for accessing the streetlight camera footage. The city’s Public Safety and Livable Communities Committee is supposed to talk more about those rules Wednesday.

In recent weeks, the activists have highlighted the fact that Elliott owns more than $10,000 worth of General Electric stock. That’s significant, they argue, because GE Current — a General Electric subsidiary that was recently purchased by a private equity firm — has been responsible for processing the raw data collected by the cameras.

One activist, Genevieve Jones-Wright, has called on Elliott to recuse herself from future streetlight discussions. Elliott has declined, arguing that her stock doesn’t rise to the level of a conflict. Jones-Wright also said an attorney for Elliott sent her a cease-and-desist letter, demanding she retract her statements.

Speaking in front of the TV cameras Tuesday, Jones-Wright characterized the letter as vindictive. She then turned to Elliott, who was standing only a few feet away, and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Elliott fired back: “Defamation is not OK.”

Soon they were calling each other “outrageous.”

In the midst of this, another major question emerged: What happens to the camera footage when it’s outside the city’s purview? Elliott argued Tuesday that the city owns the data, so it can’t be sold, as her political opponent, Cory Briggs, has insisted. But the activists countered that the data is stored by an outside company.

Indeed, if SDPD wants access to the footage, investigators need to ask a third party. A log is then created, which members of the public can access through a public records request.

SDPD confirmed last year that law enforcement agencies from outside San Diego have requested access to the footage here to aid their own investigations.

Jones-Wright said the city talks a lot about what the streetlights can’t do — for instance, they can’t read faces in public — but not enough about what they’re capable of doing in the not-so-distant future.

“Who monitors when that switch is going to be flipped?” she asked.

The press conference on top the press conference ended with one of the activists saying it was wrong of the city attorney to choose the site of a man’s death to make a political point. Shortly after that, everyone was going their separate ways.

Jesse Marx

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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