Dozens of California cities have begun using video surveillance to fight crime, but few have enacted policies to regulate their cameras and none has comprehensively studied whether the cameras are effective, the American Civil Liberties Union says in a report being released today.
The 19-page report, "Under the Watchful Eye," argues that the cameras have proven ineffective in decreasing violent crime and recommends that cities replace them with less invasive measures. Short of that, the report calls for "intense public scrutiny" of surveillance systems.
"We're trying to get people to pause, take a step back, and ask, 'Is this the road we want to go down?' " said report co-author Mark Schlosberg, police policy practices director at the ACLU's Northern California office.
The group said public-records requests of 131 cities in California found 37 with video surveillance programs, including 18 with "significant" programs watching public streets and plazas. Just 11 of the cities had policies regulating the use of the cameras, the report says.
The report comes after a week of renewed debate over cameras in San Francisco. Since 2005, Mayor Gavin Newsom's office has spent about $500,000 on 70 cameras placed at 25 high-crime hot spots, and the Housing Authority has spent $200,000 on 178 cameras for its sites.
Police have defended the 70 city cameras, saying they deterred crime, while acknowledging they have contributed to just one arrest in two years. City cameras are not monitored in real time due to privacy concerns. Investigators have ordered copies of footage about once every three weeks, police said.
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Officials in Newsom's office said a city report on the cameras' effectiveness is due in October. "It doesn't surprise us that the ACLU is issuing a report questioning the usefulness of surveillance cameras," said Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard. "They've always been opposed to them. It's like the Republican Party issuing a report that same-sex marriage doesn't work."
Officials from several other cities using surveillance cameras have told The Chronicle in the past year that they believe the technology has been effective.
Surveillance technology is ripe for abuse, warns the report by Schlosberg and Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the Northern California ACLU. "By combining video footage with face recognition software," the authors write, "the government could quickly identify individuals walking down a street, participating in a political rally, or entering a doctor's office."
Policymakers, the report says, have not considered what would happen if footage became available upon request to anyone under the state's Public Records Act. It could be used by a jealous spouse or exploited in a political campaign, the ACLU says.
The report cites a number of studies to argue that the cameras have not been proven effective at reducing violence or solving individual criminal cases. More successful police strategies, the report says, include foot patrols and the installation of street lights.
Closed-circuit camera networks have been used far longer and more widely in the United Kingdom than in the United States. In general, studies there have found that cameras can lead to slight improvements in crime rates, but mainly for property offenses and especially for car thefts in parking lots.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.