Cameras On Nearly 3,000 Street Lights All Over San Diego

In December 2016, when the San Diego City Council approved a $30.3 million project to upgrade 14,000 street lights with sensors — and a portion of them with cameras — law-enforcement applications had not yet been considered.

San Diegans are only just now coming to a wider understanding of how police access and use of video footage captured by the cameras mounted on nearly 3,000 street lights is taking place throughout the city, Erik Caldwell, the director of economic development for the city of San Diego, told The San Diego Union-Tribune on Tuesday.

“When we launched the system we did not intend for law enforcement to get as much use out of it as they are,” Caldwell said.

“And so as that changed and that fact changed we wanted to engage the public in having a conversation about that … to make sure that this unintended use case has the proper policy and oversight in place to ensure privacy and ensure that there’s no nefarious use.”

Smart sensors and cameras are mounted on ordinary street lights throughout San Diego as part of an effort to become a smart city of the future. (Luis Gomez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Police Department Lt. Jeffrey Jordon confirmed that the department has used video from these cameras to help in 46 investigations since August 11 when the department first requested their use.

This screengrab shows the concentration of camera-equipped sensors on street lights in downtown’s East Village. Luis Gomez / The San Diego Union-Tribune

Tuesday, Caldwell explained that the cameras mounted on 2,940 street lamps all over the city do not have the capability to engage in facial recognition or license-plate reading as is the case in other places. An additional 250 are currently being installed, he said.

A story published Monday about the smart street light sensors and cameras explains how the devices work. But how exactly can the police department use the data from the sensors and cameras? Where exactly are the camera-equipped street lights located? And how much information do they capture?

Here are the questions we’re answering today:

How exactly can police use video captured by the street light cameras?

The San Diego Police Department has used video footage to assist in at least 46 investigations, Lt. Jordon told the Union-Tribune on Tuesday. The cameras are recording 24 hours a day but access to video footage is highly restricted, according to the department’s policy on the “Intelligent Streetlights” program.

In the course of an investigation of a crime, a police officer may file a written request to access the exact portion of video footage captured. Direct access to video information now includes officers from divisions that investigate homicides, sex crimes, internal affairs, traffic investigations and robberies, Lt. Jordon said.

How police determine what’s an acceptable use for this video footage depends on the severity of the crime, the immediacy of a threat to public safety and what sort of other information is needed in critical incidents.

The “Intelligent Streetlights” are not equipped with Pan-Tilt-Zoom, or PTZ, video magnification, facial recognition technology or automatic license-plate readers, or ALPR, according to the department.

By Luis Gomez, (excerept)