Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

In late May and early June, San Diego experienced a series of protests over the unequal and unjust treatment of Black Americans that were at times tense and violent and that led to arrests. Over a five-day period, investigators accessed the city’s network of streetlight cameras at least 35 times in search of evidence for criminal cases.

Records obtained by VOSD show that the San Diego Police Department was primarily looking into incidents of vandalism, looting and destruction to property, as well as objects being thrown at passing vehicles or police. Most of the investigations connected to civil demonstrations downtown are still pending.

Because the footage is stored on servers outside the city, SDPD needs to request permission from a third party, a process that creates a publicly accessible log.

As San Diego prepares to prosecute people who attended protests, the streetlight camera footage could be useful not just to local authorities, but to federal prosecutors.

On June 10, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California announced that it had charged a 24-year-old man with aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter that was monitoring a protest.

SDPD made the arrest and later went looking for the relevant streetlight camera footage. But the Union-Tribune reported earlier this month that the San Diego County district attorney stepped aside after U.S. attorneys expressed interesting in handling the case because the potential penalties are greater under federal law. The man is facing a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Although it’s not uncommon for San Diego to share streetlight camera footage with other agencies, it’s also not immediately clear in this case that the footage was given to federal authorities. An SDPD spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The records also show that SDPD pulled streetlight camera footage in connection to a controversial arrest on June 4. Police in plainclothes put a woman in an unmarked van and drove away after she allegedly swung a cardboard sign at an officer on a motorcycle. The incident, which took place near San‌ ‌Diego‌ ‌High‌ ‌School‌ following a protest, was captured on the cell phone of another protester.

In the video, a group of horrified onlookers demanded to know where the woman was being taken. One of the officers responded by threatening to shoot anyone who followed the van. KPBS reports that SDPD is reviewing the incident internally but doesn’t plan to make the results public.

There is a nearby streetlight camera, but an SDPD investigator noted in the records that the footage wasn’t helpful.

In recent years, officials at City Hall have attached thousands of sensors to city streetlights, many of which are capable of watching and listening in public rights of way. The project was originally pitched to the City Council in late 2016 as a way to capture transit and environmental data that could be useful to public planners and app makers. Increasingly, though, the devices have served the purpose of law enforcement, whose leaders have repeatedly referred to the cameras as a “game changer.”

Emails previously released as part of a public records request also suggested that until January 2019 — around the same time activists began to publicly question how the technology was rolled out — officials had considered giving SDPD real-time access to the cameras. Since then, SDPD has said it would be selective about when it tapped into the cameras. But the definition of what constitutes a serious crime worthy of investigation has expanded.

San Diego’s Public Safety Committee is now working on a surveillance ordinance that will govern the use and acquisition of any current and future technology. The wider City Council has also expressed interest in scaling back — if not completely eliminating — the funds for the program.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer has offered to dramatically shrink the network of cameras and pay for it through parking revenue fees.

Elected official are expected to review the Community Parking District budget after the July 4 holiday.

Jesse Marx

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

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