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San Diego Police Use Emergency Powers to Expand Surveillance

The city’s new police chief is leaning on his emergency authority to get more surveillance cameras installed amid an increase in hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community.

San Diego Police Department with local LGBTQ Community leaders held a press conference at Rich s Gay Night Club to announce its taking steps to install Smart Streetlights with License Plate Recognition (LPR) technologies. At the podium Chief Scott Wahl makes the announcement in Hillcrest on Monday, July 8, 2024 in San Diego, Calif.
Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego’s new police chief is flexing his emergency powers to quickly get more surveillance cameras up in Hillcrest amid an increase in hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community and before the Pride Parade later this month.

The move prompted swift criticism from privacy advocates who’ve long worried the legal exception would be abused and drew mixed reactions from the LGBTQ+ community, with members expressing both support and concern.

Last year, the City Council approved the Police Department’s proposal to install 500 streetlight cameras equipped with license plate readers at specific locations across San Diego, a project that will cost about $12 million over the next five years. Although those pre-approved spots included streetlights in Hillcrest, the locations currently being considered were not among them.

Since then, the department has installed 440 so-called smart streetlight cameras that have been used to aid about 120 investigations, police officials said.

A few dozen cameras have not been installed because of a variety of infrastructural issues, such as light poles not having power or buildings blocking camera views. The struggle has led to a new proposal that would give the department greater flexibility in choosing where it puts its cameras, but it will take two more weeks for City Council to consider approving that change.

San Diego police Chief Scott Wahl argued it’s a decision that can’t wait, especially if the technology is going to be in place before Pride week, which kicks off Saturday. The parade is set for July 20.

At a Monday morning press conference inside Rich’s San Diego, a gay nightclub in Hillcrest, Wahl, flanked by LGBTQ+ community members and business leaders, said he would be using an emergency clause in the city’s surveillance ordinance — the law that governs how technologies can be used in San Diego — to fast-track the installation of 14 cameras in Hillcrest without City Council approval.

According to a memo about the decision, the cameras will be installed on six thoroughfares: Goldfinch Street, Park Boulevard, Sixth Avenue, University Avenue, Washington Street and West Washington Street.

“It’s absolutely critical that if we’re going to provide the highest level of safety and protect our community, that we mobilize the resources necessary to put the unused cameras to good, productive use,” Wahl said.

The surveillance ordinance says that if city departments want to use a previously approved technology in a new location, the Council needs to sign off on the change — unless exigent circumstances are involved.

Exigent circumstances have been defined by California courts as “an emergency situation requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or destruction of evidence.” It’s a legal exception that sometimes allows officers to make warrantless entries, searches and seizures, which are generally prohibited under the Fourth Amendment.

The city’s surveillance ordinance provides a similar definition, describing exigent circumstances as “an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any individual, or imminent danger of significant property damage, that requires the use of surveillance technology, as determined by City staff acting in good faith upon known facts.”

Wahl said the upcoming San Diego Pride Parade, a long-running LGBTQ event that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, as well as the almost 75 percent increase seen in hate crimes between 2022 and 2023 — some of which were reported in Hillcrest — qualifies as the kind of emergency that would allow the department to bypass the usual process.

“I don’t want to use this in a laissez-faire manner,” Wahl said. “I think this is a very unique situation and circumstance that I do not want to overuse.”

According to statistics released in March, reported hate crimes in San Diego jumped from 38 in 2022 to 66 in 2023. Although most incidents were racially motivated, about 30 percent, or 21 incidents, stemmed from bias against someone’s sexual orientation. That’s a five-fold increase when compared to the four incidents that were motivated by sexual orientation in 2022.

Wahl said Monday that no San Diego neighborhood has seen more reported hate crimes than Hillcrest over the last four years. During a recent incident in May, suspects in a passing vehicle fired gel pellets at people outside four Hillcrest businesses. Multiple people were struck, including Eddie Reynoso, the publisher of LGBTQ San Diego County News, who took a pellet to the eye and was seriously injured. Reynoso stood next to Wahl on Monday to express his support for the additional cameras.

“No one should have to look over their shoulder while working or enjoying a night out in town,” Reynoso said. “No one should have to rush home out of fear for their safety. … By supporting the completion of smart streetlights, we take a significant step toward reclaiming our streets and ensuring that they are as safe as they are vibrant.”

Some community advocates and legal experts disagreed with the chief’s interpretation of the emergency exception.

“To me, it sounds like those are reasonable concerns that the Police Department has to make a change to their existing surveillance system,” said Seth Hall, a member of TRUST SD, the consortium of community groups that helped craft the surveillance law. “What it doesn’t sound like to me is an emergency. … Their concerns should be processed through the normal oversight process. That’s why that process is there.”

The exigent circumstances clause included in the surveillance ordinance has long been a source of concern among advocates who helped put together the oversight law, Hall said. An early draft of the ordinance didn’t even include the emergency clause, partly out of concern that it would be used to tunnel under the ordinance’s requirements.

Those sentiments were echoed by Saira Hussain, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who said appropriate uses of exigent circumstances have been laid out in case law and involve emergencies such as crimes in progress in which someone could be seriously hurt.

“Instances in which you would imagine, ‘OK, we need to act quickly because this is out of the ordinary,’” she said. “And here, police are basically saying the process that is in place, that the City Council has approved of, is taking too long, so we’re going to try to claim exigent circumstances. … It’s really just a misuse of exigent circumstances.”

Some LGBTQ+ organizers also disagreed. About a dozen people rallied in front of Rich’s to oppose the Monday morning decision. They were not permitted entry to the news conference.

“Using Pride as an exigent circumstance feels totally disingenuous,” said Frances Yasmeen Motiwalla, a member of Activist San Diego. “Pride happens every year, it’s not a surprise, it’s not a sudden thing that’s happening.”

Although the department isn’t waiting for approval before putting up the cameras, the City Council will have the opportunity to weigh in on the additional placements at the end of July. Wahl said if the City Council rejects the proposal, department officials will take down the newly placed cameras.

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