2009 Archive

Jennifer King Takes Snapshot of San Francisco’s Surveillance Program


By Andrew Cohen

Jennifer King knows from experience that fighting crime with surveillance cameras can be unpredictable. Exhibit A: San Francisco’s Community Safety Camera Program.

King co-authored a detailed study of the program and found that although it fell well short of meeting its main goal—deterring violent crime—property crime dropped 24 percent in areas where cameras had been installed. Facing the city’s highest homicide rate in a decade but also a serious budget deficit, city officials must now decide how to proceed with video surveillance.

Led by King, a research specialist at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic, a team of researchers conducted the study through UC Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society. While it indicated the San Francisco program was marred by deficient technology, training, and oversight, King cautions that even major improvements in those areas may have little impact on violent crime.

“We have to understand that violent crime is very rare in terms of percentage of overall crime and very unique in its nature,” she says. “The Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice has researched violent crime in San Francisco, and saw that it was primarily gang-motivated and usually committed by people with felony records against people with felony records. So there are a lot of factors there that cameras wouldn’t deter.”

What went wrong

Former Samuelson Clinic director and Berkeley Law professor Deirdre Mulligan co-authored the study, which identified several problems with San Francisco’s plan. Notably, it was administered by a mix of city agencies and lacked a defined manager. “San Francisco started using cameras as a pilot program,” King says, “but then turned it into a full-fledged program without acknowledging that fact.”

And unlike virtually every other camera surveillance program across the country, San Francisco police did not monitor the cameras in real time—which meant investigators had to order footage after a crime was reported.

King said police received no training on how to view the surveillance video and that their investigations suffered from poor footage quality. That issue, caused by a low rate of frames per second and insufficient data storage space, often made it hard to identify clues as fundamental as license plate numbers.

The study recommends increasing storage to meet the initial 30-day mandate for how long video should be retained—and to improve the actual footage caliber. But ramping up the rate of frames per second and storage capacity to keep images a month instead of a week could cost $3 million.

Promising legal guidelines

King’s research team examined everything from camera locations and police requests for images to how often those images were used to bring charges. She believes the 184-page study—one of the most detailed public surveillance reports ever written—will benefit a growing number of jurisdictions using or considering similar programs. In particular, she hopes they heed some of the careful steps San Francisco took to honor privacy concerns and protect civil liberties while establishing and administering its surveillance.

“I grew up near Los Angeles, where we thought of the police department as a quasi-paramilitary organization that wasn’t accountable to the public,” King says. “This is quite a contrast. San Francisco made a commendable effort to create an inclusive system that was responsive to public concerns. Of all the systems we’ve reviewed throughout the country, it’s the only one with this high level of public oversight.”

In her work with the Samuelson Clinic examining surveillance programs across California and the nation, King has tried to facilitate effective deterrence with sufficient checks and balances.

“Without a balanced governance structure, you see how these systems can run out of control,” King says. “A lot of cities are implementing camera systems, and this is an uncharted area of law from a public perspective. Right now there are no laws on the books regarding the use of public surveillance cameras, and no legal guidance as to what’s proper or improper.”

A tricky road ahead

The question now facing San Francisco: Is that drop in property crime important enough to maintain the current system, or should it change how cameras are used to better confront violent crime? It cost $700,000 to buy and install the cameras, and King suggests a new budget-friendly approach for redistributing them.

“Most locations now have maybe two to four cameras,” she says. “They’d probably do better to consolidate cameras and focus more on specific areas rather than distribute them thinly across the city.”

San Francisco officials may also want to monitor the cameras in real time, but that’s unlikely given the current economic climate and the resources required. Berkeley Law professor Frank Zimring, a renowned criminal justice expert, echoes King’s thoughts on the difficulty of fully evaluating a surveillance program in its early stages.

“Whenever you have repeat players interested in avoiding detection, they’ll adapt to new environments more easily,” says Zimring. “The question becomes to what extent they’re deterred and to what extent they’re diverted or relocated. That makes for a tougher analysis.”