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Red Tape Over Tech Could Delay Key S.F. Crime-Fighting Tool

The city now needs to trudge through another set of hearings, this time focused on technical specifics such as which vendor could service the readers, and what format to use when storing digital images.

San Francisco officials, long beset by relentless car break-ins and theft at downtown department stores, are seeking to install 400 license plate readers on streets to catch perpetrators.

But the plan — funded by a state grant to combat organized retail theft — could be tied up for months, grinding through an approval process. Under an ordinance passed in 2019, every new surveillance technology in San Francisco requires a unique use policy and must be vetted at meetings of a subcommittee and the full Committee on Information Technology before going to the Board of Supervisors. Even changes to the back-end functioning of surveillance equipment can trigger this process.

Although the 2019 ordinance was most notable for restricting facial- recognition technology, privacy advocates say it’s vital to carefully review any law enforcement tool before a city plops it into the public right-of-way.

“As we acquire more technology, we ask more questions,” said Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who authored the legislation. “It’s not time-consuming or burdensome. It increases trust and transparency.”

Still, as pressure mounts on police and politicians to crack down on property crime, criticism of license plate readers seems to have softened. Mayor London Breed and others worry that multiple hearings — combined with a holiday break — will push implementation of the devices into next year, becoming another example of red tape constricting any movement in San Francisco.

In this case, the multistep process strikes many city officials as especially frustrating, because the supervisors already approved police use of license plate readers in 2021. But to abide by the law, the city now needs to trudge through another set of hearings, this time focused on technical specifics such as which vendor could service the readers and what format to use when storing digital images.

Breed is seeking to speed up the procedure, arguing that the need for law enforcement technology is too urgent to get mired in city bureaucracy. Peskin said he would accede.

“Public safety requires us to be nimble and quick to adapt to use new technologies,” Breed said in a statement, citing the critical role that license plate readers play “in disrupting retail theft, car break-ins, sideshows, and other criminal activity.”

The city’s laws “inhibit, rather than support the expansion of public safety tools like license plate readers,” Breed continued. “We must do everything we can to get these cameras deployed as quickly as possible. There is no reason for delay.”

Evan Sernoffsky, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, echoed those sentiments.

“This is technology that would have immediate impacts on our ability to catch serial criminals” suspected of plundering stores, stealing catalytic converters or committing violent crimes, Sernoffsky said. He noted that the state had doled out grants strategically to connect law enforcement agencies and create a regional camera network, knowing that thieves drive from city to city.

If other cities build the infrastructure while San Francisco dithers, the city could become “a black hole” to which perpetrators flee, Sernoffsky said. He also stressed the role of cameras in targeted enforcement, so that police can focus on tracking and stopping vehicles they have already connected with a crime and cut down on needless traffic stops based on suspicion.

With the readers already paid for, Sernoffsky added, “there is no reason to stall this at all.”

The legislation that Breed favors asks for technical adjustments that would enable the city to use about $4 million it received to place 400 license plate readers at 100 intersections — part of a $17.3 million grant that would also pay for police patrols, crime analysts and prosecutors in the district attorney’s office. Hoping to expedite installation of the new readers, Breed asked the supervisors to waive a 30-day waiting period applied to any legislation that would change city policy.

Meanwhile, Breed is crafting a public safety ballot measure that would make substantive change to the city’s policy for approving new surveillance equipment. Chiefly, the measure would allow police to use drones and publicly owned live cameras without going through the approval process, while also allowing law enforcement to “pilot” surveillance devices for up to a year while approvals move forward.

(c)2023 The San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.