As the City faces a growing crime problem, the Mayor’s Office and the Police Department want to install security cameras at nine major “high-crime” intersections in San Francisco to monitor “suspicious” activity. With a federal government that is increasingly hostile to our basic civil liberties in the post 9/11 era, it’s easy to see why many would find the idea of police-run security cameras offensive. But if you live near these areas – and have had enough of the escalating homicides, robberies and vandalism – it’s a totally different story. “Normally I agree with the ACLU,” said a resident of the Aranda Hotel on Turk Street, “but I suggest they try living in my neighborhood.” Meanwhile, safety advocates question if these security cameras would really deter crime and make us safe – while civil liberties champions question if a darker agenda is at hand.

In the Tenderloin, there have been 233 reported incidents of criminal activity in the past year within 100 feet of Ellis and Jones Streets. There have also been 307 reported incidents within 100 feet of Turk and Taylor. Both of these intersections have been slated to have security cameras installed, and it appears from public testimony that most residents support the idea. “The cameras are needed because they might capture clear evidence of shootings, rapes and robberies,” said Tenderloin resident George Dias. “Frequently, eyewitnesses are too frightened to testify against violent gangsters, because they have to live in the neighborhood with them if the prosecution is not successful.”

But many of these residents will support just about anything at this point that will help fight crime, whether or not its effectiveness has been tested. Many of these same people support police foot patrols and better street lighting -- proposals that have a stronger track record of deterring crime. Security cameras, on the other hand, have not been proven to prevent crime: studies in the United Kingdom, for example (where cameras are used extensively) have not shown a decrease in crime as a result of their proliferation. Any noticeable decrease in crime has been statistically insignificant, and “all changes might be attributed to chance” rather than the presence of cameras.

But even if there’s no evidence that they prevent crime, neighborhood residents support them because they feel that it would help the police solve crimes. It’s a somewhat cynical argument – one that has resigned itself to the fact that criminal activity will happen no matter what, and that we just need to punish those who do it. “There is very little evidence that these cameras work to reduce crime,” wrote Dias in an op-ed in the Chronicle this week, “but it’s worth a try.” Or as Police Commissioner Joe Marshall described it, the cameras are like a “placebo” – the mere existence of the cameras (whether or not they work) makes them feel safer.

In 2005, the City installed 22 security cameras as a pilot program in several high-crime areas – including the Western Addition and the Alemany housing projects. “Just as we cannot predict what is the best strategy,” said Allen Nance of the Mayor’s Office of Community Justice at a Police Commission hearing in November, “I don’t think we are at a point where we can predict how this tool can and should be used in the future.” But despite a dearth of information on their usefulness, the Mayor’s Office is now pushing to expand the security cameras to nine additional intersections. And the Police Commission won’t get data on their effectiveness until a year after implementation.

Another concern is whether the security cameras will just shift criminal activity to other parts of the same neighborhood. In July 2005, for example, the City installed cameras at the corner of Eddy and Buchanan – but now the City wants to install them just three blocks away at McAllister and Buchanan. In its brief to the Police Commission, the ACLU asked to what extent will the arm of “Big Brother” simply expand these security cameras to every street corner. In Chicago (where Gavin Newsom says he got this idea form), Mayor Richard Daley announced that by 2016 there will be a camera on every street corner in the city. Is this the vision that we want for San Francisco?

Even the proposed cameras at Turk and Taylor have their own set of problems. At the November Police Commission hearing, one speaker pointed out that the proposed cameras were actually pointed in the wrong direction – away from the part of Turk Street where the vast majority of drug deals and robberies occur.

The $275,000 that it will cost to install these cameras will come from the City’s general fund – so it’s not a question of using money that comes from the federal government. But advocates warn that anyone from the general public to the Immigration authorities can use the data from these security cameras – and the federal government has already encouraged cities to set up such installations. If the feds announce a round-up of illegal immigrants, will the data from these security cameras be used for less “noble” purposes?

In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has offered grants in order to entice cities to set up security camera systems. In Fresno, for example, the City Council considered a $1.2 million proposal to set up security cameras throughout the City -- $400,000 of that money was a grant from Homeland Security. Tenderloin residents – especially Latino families – have had second thoughts about supporting the security cameras when presented with the possibility that they could be used for these purposes.

Tonight, the Police Commission will hold a public hearing at 6:00 p.m. to get input on the proposed security cameras. The hearing is at City Hall in Room 400 – concerned residents (on both sides of this issue) are strongly urged to attend.

Send feedback to paul@thclinic.org