Since the Boston Marathon bombings, cities around the country have been struggling to beef up security at major public events. San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr floated one possibility on April 22nd, suggesting that, "We'd like to have more [security cameras] so we could have a continuous operating picture of all Market Street," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. However, today he appeared to soften his position, after facing criticism from the ACLU and city officials.
"Let me be clear about what I said and did not say," Suhr said in testimony before the Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Safety & Service Committee, denying that had made plans to carpet Market Street with real-time monitored police cameras. Instead, he made a request for further study of the possibility of the police tapping in to private security cameras during major events, like Bay to Breakers or America's Cup. The Chief is getting used to such backtracking, having to make a similar retreat recently over his wish for officers to carry Tasers in addition to their firearm. He eventually dropped the plan altogether. Though he hasn't done so for the camera proposal yet, he seems to be feeling the heat regardless.
We caught up with Suhr outside City Hall chambers to expand on his comments to the committee: "We’d like to find out what [surveillance capabilities] we have. To do a gap analysis. In fact, I’m right now talking to different consultants to see if they would do that [...] To find out what the blind spots are, then talk to whomever—public or private—to see if we can’t camera them up. And then the holy grail, the unicorn would be if there was such a technical solution that could take all the cameras and then organize them so that they would be viewed [by] one single point of contact, at a command post." Ideally, he said, the police would like to be able to see in real time the "big huge crowded places that are on television anyway."
When asked about civil liberties concerns, Suhr seemed chagrined: "Even though it’s been held that there is no right to privacy in a public place, in San Francisco that’s still a conversation. Certainly, I would hope that if [the event] is already on television anyway that there would be less of an expectation [of privacy] and we might be allowed to monitor it—just because of the sheer number size of the crowd."
Whether Suhr will get the study or not still depends on a number of factors, including cost. "We just had one estimate of $100,000 to do the survey," he told us. "But the way it works in the City is we'd have to put it up for bid." In any case, no such plan would be able to be in place before Bay to Breakers on May 19th.
Though he hasn't lost the camera fight yet, it seems that the man San Francisco once dubbed the "well-paid, cop-loved, politically-respected Chief," is discovering that, in San Francisco at least, good will only goes so far.