A streetlight camera
A streetlight camera / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

This post originally appeared in the July 19 Morning Report. Subscribe for free here.

The San Diego City Council took another step Monday toward the implementation of a surveillance ordinance but opened the door to possible changes down the road.

The ordinance is intended to put greater rules around the use and acquisition of technology capable of monitoring the public. It’s been in the works for more than two years but languished for much of that time as the mayor’s office changed hands and officials compiled a list of surveillance tools while meeting with the heads of employee unions.

The version of the ordinance approved last month by a narrow 5-4 vote included an exemption for cops who serve on federal task forces, generating hours of public discussion, almost all of it in opposition. Many of those same voices reiterated their opposition on Monday.

They argued that the federal task force exemption undermined the transparency goals of the ordinance and put, as three argued in the Union-Tribune last week, immigrants and people traveling here for reproductive health care at risk. At the meeting, several pointed to the FBI’s history of using surveillance to disrupt Black and Brown political groups, and others shared stories of how they or their Muslim families were harassed after 9/11.

As Khalid Alexander, a member of the Trust SD Coalition, put it: “Why would you want to blind yourself to the task forces in your own district?”

Monica Montgomery Steppe, who introduced and championed the ordinance alongside community groups, said she continues to have issues with the exemption but agreed to move the ordinance forward because of the considerable delay. She also complained that the FBI never reached out to discuss the exemption and complained that the proponents of the exemptions have mischaracterized her supporters.

“Everyone wants the same doggone thing, and that is to feel safe in their community,” she said.

On Council President Sean Elo-Rivera’s recommendation, the ordinance was unanimously pushed through for a final reading while city staff also consider the possibility of a new amendment in the future. Elo-Rivera asked officials to consider tweaking the federal task force exemption so it doesn’t apply to the collection of information about reproductive healthcare, citizenship status, gender identity and sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and religion.

“We’re in a tough spot today,” Elo-Rivera said. “The folks who showed up to share their stories and history of surveillance in this country, you made more than a compelling case for why it’s so important for us to protect transparency here.”

He said he wanted to ensure that Montgomery Steppe’s work becomes law while the civil rights of San Diegans are protected.

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

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