Smart streetlight help San Diego police investigate crime

Law enforcement officials are using video from the 3,200 streetlight cameras to investigate violent crimes.

San Diego began installing smart streetlights in 2018 that were equipped with microphones, cameras and sensors that could act as gunshot detectors, find open parking spaces, measure air quality and track traffic flow of both vehicles and pedestrians.

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While the new LED bulbs are cutting energy costs and consumption, "it's still unclear what the [sensor] data will ultimately be used for," according to the LA Times.

Law enforcement officials, however, have begun to use video  from the 3,200 streetlight cameras to investigate violent crimes.

Just last summer, officers used streetlight footage for the first time in an investigation of a violent fight that led to a man’s death, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Since then, video has been used in more than 140 police investigations, and that number is increasing: The department says it views footage as frequently as 20 times a month.

“We’ve had a lot of success stories recently, a couple of convictions where people have actually seen the video through a defense attorney and they immediately took a guilty plea rather than go to trial,” Lt. Jeffrey Jordon, who oversees the program for the department, told the newspaper.

The video has also helped exonerate suspects, leading police to drop murder charges they saw that a suspect had acted in self defense against an attacker. While Jordon called the program “game changing,” the surveillance system has also been criticized for not being properly regulated and committing potential privacy violations.

Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said there needs to be “meaningful oversight” and accountability measures in place for police use of streetlamp camera footage.

“Decisions about how to use surveillance technology should not be made unilaterally by law enforcement or another city agency,” he said.

As of now, about 100 investigative officers in the sex crimes, robbery, traffic, internal affairs and homicide units have direct access to the video. The department’s internal policy dictates that video should only be reviewed in connection with violent crimes and that officers outside of those units can only gain access if approved by a “designated authority,” the Union-Tribune reported. Footage on the cameras is deleted every five days if not downloaded by officers for investigations.

At a public meeting in June, Jordon told city council members that the camera system is a “reactive tool” that has been instrumental in dozens of cases, according to the Union-Tribune. He added that the cameras do not record private property or use facial recognition or license-plate-reading technology.

“We don’t have a room set up where anybody’s watching this,” Jordon said.

This article was first posted to Security Today, a sibling site to GCN.

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