Misguided Opposition to Castro Cameras

Surveillance video is already here. And, it makes sense

It has literally changed the way we view our lives.

A case could be made that Black Lives Matter would never have become a major movement without it. Outrage over the unprovoked attacks on Asian Americans have been fueled by it.

And don’t forget that cat doing housework.

It’s video. And it is everywhere.

Virtually every major building in San Francisco has cameras mounted on it. Police officers are required to activate body cameras when they engage. And, of course, millions of us carry a video camera everywhere we go.

The result? Cameras on buildings have not only showed us the horrifying attacks on Asian and Pacific Islanders, the footage has regularly resulted in quick apprehension of the suspect.

Police body cameras have been an eye-opening (and maybe mind-changing) look a police arrests and use of deadly force. The videos of cops shooting unarmed black men in the back sent millions to the streets in protest. (There’s even a case to be made that the video may sometimes show good police officers making the right decision.)

And finally, and probably most influential, are all of us free-lance videographers. The obvious example is there is no way the death of George Floyd would have blown up the way it did without ordinary citizens recording that knee on his neck with their cell phones.

Compare that video to the police report, which called Floyd’s death “a medical incident.” That used to be that was all the information we’d get.

Cell phone footage has recorded unexpected moments, terrible violence and the guy on the bike who runs into the back of a truck because he’s on his cell phone.

So it hands me a laugh to hear now that privacy advocates are objecting to installing surveillance cameras outside Castro District businesses.

Guys, that horse has not only left the barn, he moved to a lovely boarding stable in the East Bay.

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Cameras are already everywhere — a Castro business group says there are already 224 in the district — and business owners don’t seem to be the ones objecting.

It isn’t the cost. Chris Larsen, who co-founded the tech company Ripple, is donating $695,000 for the installation. Larsen has already paid for similar systems in the Tenderloin and Union Square.

The rub is that Larsen wants to put together a network, so that all the new cameras would be linked. That way the police — and let’s don’t kid ourselves about who will be using this — can go to one spot and call up multiple views of a scene.

If this sets off your Big Brother detector, fine. But again, there are already hundreds of cameras all over the neighborhood. The first thing police do when called to a scene is ask if there is video.

Then they go door-to-door to look for offices or houses that have video. Larsen’s plan just puts it all in one place.

I get the invasion of privacy issues, and we will get back to that. But I think it is more fundamental.

Video is real. It is what happened. Sometimes it is violent and terrible. Sometimes it is a terrible tragedy. And sometimes we see people carrying out acts of cruelty and hatred.

And we can argue about how we feel about those things. We can, and will, disagree.

But that’s what really happened. And if we are making serious, consequential and maybe life-altering decisions, we have to agree we want that information.

Now, we actually have a bit of a city history with surveillance cameras. A lot of people hated them back in 2006, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom wanted to install so-called “crime cameras” in notorious hot spots in the city.

In a way it was a time like this, with general concern about crime. The homicide rate in 2005 was the highest in a decade. Newsom vowed if the violent crime didn’t decrease, “you can begin the campaign to recall me.”

Newsom was able to get some 33 cameras installed. But there were so many objections that he also had to agree to some restraints.

The cameras could not change direction. They had no audio. And the cameras could not be monitored in real time. If a crime occurred the police had to file a request with the Department of Emergency Management.

In other words, they were essentially useless. As this Examiner story from 2014 says a 2008 study out of UC Berkeley said, “We find no evidence of an impact . . . on violent crime.”

And that was that. A complete waste of time, money and effort.

So the other day I was humble-bragging about how I was getting nearly 2,000 views of the newsletter some weeks. And my chum Casey Newton casually announces he’s recently had 200,000. Obviously . . . I need shares.

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But a funny thing happened. Video cameras became small, cheap and easy to set up. Even corner grocery stores could easily afford a security camera system.

And police forces everywhere began asking to see video. A huge grass roots surveillance network was created. And in addition to supplying TMZ with crazy encounters at the cash register, they also helped catch real criminals.

Which is really the goal here isn’t it? Critics say the cameras don’t prevent violent crime, but what enraged attacker is going to see a camera and decide to calm down? The video could find the attacker afterward. Although you’d rather prevent the crime, that’s something.

Now, there is a sticking point that is a little tougher to refute. Increasingly, police forces around the world and in the USA, have begun to use facial recognition scanning. It is so widespread and easy to us that The New York Times says Taylor Swift is scanning her crowds with facial recognition tools to identify stalkers.

And yes, that is a little unsettling. Especially when studies show facial recognition often mis-identifies people of color. I could definitely see pumping the brakes on that.

And, in fact, San Francisco already has. In 2019, the Board of Supervisors voted to ban the use of facial recognition technologies by the police “or other agencies.”

Fair enough. But it should also be said that one of the stated reasons advocates oppose the cameras in the Castro is that when George Floyd protests turned to looting, police requested — and got — access to Larsen’s Union Square footage.

Cries of “Police State” followed.

Really? That’s your cause? That the guys who are looting shouldn’t have their privacy violated?

I go back to what Tom Ostly, a former assistant district attorney said at a community meeting last month:

“The cameras aren’t political. They don’t have a bias. They just show what happened.”

It’s simple. If you did it, and we saw you do it on video, you own it.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Suggestions and compliments cheerfully accepted. Criticism not so much. Twitter: @cwnevius