San Diego City Council moves forward with surveillance tech ordinance

The San Diego City Council this week moved forward with regulations that will govern the city’s use of surveillance technology, but not without changes many residents oppose, including an exemption for police officers on federal task forces. Councilmembers will need to vote on the ordinance a final time before it can be implemented.

The regulations were proposed in 2019 after residents learned the city had installed a network of 3,000 cameras on streetlights three years earlier, and that police used the technology to investigate certain types of crimes.

The ordinance is intended to increase transparency and oversight of surveillance technology used by the city. City staff will be required to issue reports about the intended use of such technology, and the City Council will have to decide whether to move forward, but not before the public and a privacy advisory board created earlier this year weigh in.
The council would be required to reconsider the use of the technology annually. The vote came a month after the council voted 5-4, to make amendments during what was expected to be a final vote on the ordinance. During a June 20 meeting, Councilmember Raul Campillo asked for a couple of changes, including the exemption for San Diego police officers on federal task forces. The amendments also included a cap on attorney fees at $15,000 in the event of a lawsuit over the regulations.

San Diego police Chief David Nisleit had asked for the police-related exemption, saying federal agencies bar task force members from disclosing information about their use of surveillance technology. Requiring them to do so, through the ordinance, would mean effectively that San Diego police could no longer work on federal task forces, Nisleit said.
On Monday, dozens of public speakers called on the council to reject the exemption and the cap on attorney fees. Several speakers identified as members of marginalized communities, including Muslims who said they fear the FBI could monitor them. They said they and their families already felt surveilled after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said the council had to weigh a desire to implement the ordinance against a wish to protect communities and their civil liberties. At his request, the council agreed to discuss at a later date additional amendments to safeguard against the collection of information related to health care, citizenship status, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and race.

The City Council first approved the surveillance-related ordinance in November 2020. Several employee groups invoked their right to review the regulations before the council considered them for final approval — a review process that took 18 months.