Will San Diego City Council Rubber Stamp Police Surveillance Technology?

by on July 31, 2023 · 6 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

By Seth Hall / Op-Ed Voice of San Diego / July 28, 2023

Two important recent events hint at whether San Diego is ready to responsibly handle the use of mass surveillance technology in our city.

The first was a recent agreement between community groups and the San Diego City Council.  Under the leadership of Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, we reached a solution to extend an important deadline for the city of San Diego to review and approve the use of all its existing technology.

The community and City Council successfully worked together to avoid the “reset” of the ordinance proposed by the mayor and his outside consultant, which would have gutted important portions of the oversight process. The city now has three more years to get this part of its oversight responsibilities right.

Everyone would like it to be done faster, but we all agree that getting it done right is more important than speed.

The second important event was when the San Diego Police Department’s proposed policies for “smart streetlights” surveillance cameras and license plate trackers went to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee last week.

There, the committee looked past the dozens of community members who showed up asking for major improvements, and looked past the Privacy Advisory Board of experts who have recommended major improvements, and also looked past the one councilmember who represents a district that will be burdened with a large number of devices, who determined that SDPD’s proposal needed a deeper look before moving on.

Instead of listening to any of those stakeholder voices, three council members abandoned their oversight duties and simply rubber-stamped the department’s proposed policies, exactly as written. Perfect 10, on the first try? No notes? Really?

In 2020, the TRUST SD Coalition proposed and defended this surveillance oversight process because we believed that San Diego was ready to move beyond the oversimplified fights over surveillance of the past. We thought this city was ready to build bridges of collaboration between the community, city leaders, city departments and the many experts who reside in our city. We wanted to move past accusations of being pro-surveillance or anti-technology and instead ask: How can our city engage in Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology?

Two different city councils agreed with us, unanimously. Presumably, neither voted to approve a robust, multi-stakeholder oversight process, just so councilmembers could whip out their ear plugs and rubber stamps.

The “smart streetlights” technology is currently this city’s most controversial surveillance technology proposal. The Privacy Advisory Board did its job by examining the proposals the best they could, and making recommendations. The community has shown up tirelessly in this process; my own community group authored a painstakingly detailed report that identified 43 deficiencies in the proposed “smart streetlights” policies.

Yet it seems possible that councilmembers will not use their oversight power to improve even this, the most controversial proposal, from the most sensitive city department, in even one meaningful way. Why, then, did they vote unanimously to give themselves oversight?

When the smart streetlights and license plate tracking policies show up for full City Council consideration on Tuesday, Aug. 1 at 2 p.m., it would be right to expect that any serious city councilmember, who has any interest in protecting the public, will be holding in their hand not a rubber stamp, but instead a red pen ready to make the improvements San Diegans want and need.

It would have been more efficient for everyone if those improvements had happened at the Public Safety Committee, and it’s a failure of Councilmembers Marni von Wilpert, Raul Campillo and Jennifer Campbell that it didn’t happen when it should have. It now falls to our full City Council to make sure we do things the right way.

Everyone would like it to be done faster, but we all agree that getting it done right is more important than speed.

Seth Hall is co-founder of the community group San Diego Privacy, which is a member of the TRUST SD Coalition.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

sealintheSelkirks July 31, 2023 at 3:52 pm

I don’t understand why the title of this article has a question mark as I’m pretty certain this exact wording can be used tomorrow afternoon minus the ‘Will’ and that question mark, and all the writer has to do is add an ‘s’ to the word ‘Stamp.’ Of course it’ll be moan and groan time for some people but…well, who in power cares what they think really, eh?

A quote from Caitlin Johnstone, writer and investigative reporter;

“One of the most consequential collective delusions circulating in our society is the belief that our society is free. Our society is exactly free enough to create the illusion that we have freedom; from that line onward it is just totalitarianism veiled in propaganda.”

Screw the ‘boiling frog’ analogy, how about slow hanging instead? Or maybe ‘Death by a thousand cuts?’



Frank Gormlie August 2, 2023 at 11:03 am

Okay Seal, you were right. The city council did rubber stamp SDPD’s surveillance proposals.


sealintheSelkirks August 2, 2023 at 12:25 pm

Well of course they did, Frank. This kind of localized East German Stasi info/surveillance (since the info gathered is spread country-wide by computer that term is appropriate) is happening all over the country. Hell, anybody with a cell phone…or this computer for that matter. The patterns in this society are obvious and, well, it’s going to continually get worse.

The Caitlin Johnston quote, ya know?

Realize I really do hate being correct. Most of the time I’d rather be pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately that rarely happens.

Big sigh.



Mat Wahlstrom August 1, 2023 at 6:30 am

Here’s the public comment I submitted. Doubt it will make a difference, but at least it’s calling them out on their bovine excrement:

“It is impossible for this Council to approve the ill-conceived and intentionally vague language regarding surveillance technology before you today and even remotely call it exercising ‘oversight.’ It is a wholesale betrayal.

Despite voters overwhelmingly rejecting license plate readers and spy streetlights at the ballot box, the SDPOA in collaboration with the Mayor (and sadly I suspect some of you) have continually worked to undermine and twist those rejections into acceptance. Not content with limiting First Amendment protections in public comments and violating Fifth Amendment protections regarding the unhoused, you now propose to gut the Fourth Amendment rights of everyone who ventures out in public.

We will not be deceived into believing that your approval would have anything to do with public safety. And don’t you be deceived into believing your craven fear of the SDPOA and the police will protect you at the ballot box.”


Frank Gormlie August 1, 2023 at 2:36 pm

Spot on, Mat!


nostalgic August 2, 2023 at 9:36 am

Whatever happened to the magic surveillance cameras the police put on the beach in OB a few years ago?


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