City attorney defends use of streetlight cameras

Politics
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SAN DIEGO -- San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott Tuesday highlighted ways the city's Smart Streetlights program has helped the San Diego Police Department investigate crimes, pushing back against critics of the program.

Elliott spoke at a news conference outside the Alpha Project homeless bridge shelter just south of downtown, where a security guard was fatally shot the weekend after Christmas, leaving behind a wife and six children. The only witness to the crime was one of the city's streetlights, which helped police track down the suspects now charged with his murder.

"Police have used streetlight recordings to help solve nearly 250 crimes, including murders, sexual assaults, kidnappings, carjackings, arsons and hate crimes," Elliott said. "Yet now a small group is telling a bunch of lies about Smart Streetlights to try to shut them down.

"I may be the only elected official in San Diego who isn't intimidated by their scare tactics but I'm not going to turn my back on a powerful crime-solving tool that removes murderers and rapists from our streets."

Cory Briggs, who is running against Elliott for City Attorney, said he agrees that surveillance -- used in moderation -- can be a benefit to public safety. However, he said Elliott hid the truth when she helped lead the effort to acquire the streetlights able to record audio and video and compile traffic data.

"The real issue isn't the use of this technology by the police. The real issue is that Mara Elliott sold out San Diegans' privacy to General Electric, creating the country's largest mass-surveillance and data-collection program of residents without any oversight and, as the contract reads, "in perpetuity," Briggs said in a statement issued by his campaign.

The 2016 contract to install 4,200 of the lights at key intersections has drawn criticism from privacy advocates. The use of footage and data were proposed initially to help create traffic solutions. The SDPD began requesting the footage in 2018 to help in criminal investigations.

Elliott stated that the cameras don't read license plates or recognize faces, are fixed cameras in public places, all camera footage is deleted within five days unless it is part of a police investigation, and the city has exclusive rights to the data created by the streetlights and is barred from selling it to any entity.

Elliott said the streetlights have been a "game-changer" in investigating crimes, including 44 homicides or attempted homicides, 46 assaults and 36 robberies or burglaries.

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