Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego’s surveillance ordinance — a piece of legislation that has been in the works for two years and is intended to put greater rules around the acquisition and use of technology capable of monitoring the public — is headed back for further review. 

After four hours of public testimony and debate, the City Council voted 5-4 to amend the ordinance so that it exempts San Diego police officers for their work on federal task forces. The amendment, proposed by Councilman Raul Campillo, also caps attorney fees in the event a member of the public sues for a violation of the ordinance and wins. 

The ordinance, written by the Trust SD Coalition and Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, doesn’t ban surveillance technologies. It requires that the technologies used by city employees are known to the public, and there’s an opportunity to evaluate those technologies upfront and on an ongoing basis with the help of a privacy advisory board. 

How we got here: The ordinance grew out of community frustration, primarily in Black and brown neighborhoods, over the city’s purchase and installation of thousands of streetlight cameras in 2016. City staff pitched the smart technology as a public planning good, but it evolved into a tool for law enforcement run by an outside company based in Florida. 

Major point of contention: Monday’s amendment came in response to SDPD Chief David Nisleit’s claim that if the ordinance passed without changes, he would have to pull his officers from federal task forces out of concern they would be compelled to disclose information and jeopardize large-scale operations. He cited 16 non-disclosure agreements with the FBI. 

In response, supporters — including many of the public speakers, who were overwhelmingly in favor of the ordinance as written — said other cities with similar rules have not ended their relationships with the feds. Some expressed concern over how far-reaching San Diego’s agreements with federal authorities really are and amazement that elected officials would not want to know more about the technology being used here. 

“That seems counterintuitive to why this discussion even arose,” said Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland’s privacy advisory commission, who’s been advising San Diego. 

What’s next: Because of the amendments, the ordinance needs to go back to the City Council for more hearings. Elected officials unanimously requested that the ordinance be re-introduced on July 19. In the meantime, the city attorney’s office will determine whether the ordinance needs to go back to the city’s unions for further review.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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