New documents EFF received through public records requests have revealed that the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) received live access to the hundreds of surveillance cameras that comprise the Union Square Business Improvement District’s (USBID) camera network in anticipation of potential protests following the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee. The protests were impassioned and peaceful as Bay Area residents gathered to oppose police violence–and the SFPD proactively got access to watch it all, opening up activists to potential risk of reprisal and retribution for their political beliefs and potentially chilling future participation in demonstrations.
On January 27, 2023, an SFPD commander reached out to the USBID with a 12-hour live monitoring request for the 450 cameras in its network, citing “potential civil unrest” in anticipation of the release of body camera footage of Tyre Nichols’ killing by members of the Memphis Police Department. Reporting in the San Francisco Standard suggests that the SFPD may not have ended up engaging in live monitoring, but simply requesting this access before a protest can chill First Amendment activity. This act also indicates the SFPD is interpreting the ordinance too broadly. The policy states: “SFPD is prohibited from accessing, requesting, or monitoring any surveillance camera live feed during First Amendment activities unless there are exigent circumstances or for placement of police personnel due to crowd sizes or other issues creating imminent public safety hazards.” But the SFPD has not shown that, when they obtained live access, there were any imminent hazards or exigent circumstances.
The SFPD was able to seek live monitoring as a result of the controversial September 2022 temporary ordinance that authorized police to receive live access to non-city security cameras for a host of reasons, including to monitor so-called “significant events.” This temporary camera ordinance, which passed as a 15-month pilot, was vigorously opposed by community and civil liberties organizations, including EFF; members of the city’s civilian oversight Police Commission; and four members of the Board of Supervisors. San Francisco’s landmark 2019 privacy law forbade the SFPD from using non-city surveillance cameras, or any other surveillance technology, absent permission from the city’s Board of Supervisors via an ordinance. The department delayed seeking such permission for nearly three years.
This is not the first time that the SFPD has obtained live access to non-city cameras concerning First Amendment-protected activity. EFF and ACLU of Northern California have an ongoing lawsuit against the SFPD, Williams v. City and County of San Francisco, for gaining live access to these same cameras for over a week to surveil protests against the police murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. The SFPD’s continued push for live access to business district camera networks creates a dangerous precedent that puts all people participating in peaceful protest at risk of surveillance.
You can read the documents below.
Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst working on issues of surveillance and policing at the local, state, and federal level. He received a PhD in history at the University of Connecticut where his research focused on the intersection of race, immigration, U.S. imperialism, and policing in New York City. He is the co-editor of The Essential Kerner Commission Report (Liveright, 2021) and his book Police in the Empire City is forthcoming from Duke University Press and his bylines have appeared in NBC News, the Washington Post, Slate, Motherboard, and the Freedom of Information-centered outlet Muckrock. Matthew is an affiliated scholar at University of California, San Francisco School of Law and serves as an editor of “Disciplining the City,” a series on the history of urban policing and incarceration at the Urban History Association’s blog The Metropole.
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