City Council signs off on San Diego Police Department’s smart streetlights network

A camera-equipped smart streetlight in the Gaslamp District of San Diego.
A camera-equipped smart streetlight in the Gaslamp District.
(Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Once installed, the city would become the largest in the country to use cameras and license plate readers as part of a single network


The San Diego City Council approved the Police Department’s smart streetlights proposal on Tuesday, which all but ensures the controversial network’s future deployment.

The department first proposed the cameras — 500 of them, all equipped with automated license plate reader technology — in March. Once installed, the city would become the largest in the country to use cameras and plate readers as part of a single network, San Diego police officials have said.

The cameras, which police have hailed as a force multiplier and a crime-fighting tool, would be located across San Diego, with the highest concentrations in District 8, which includes communities such as Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, Otay Mesa, and District 3, which encompasses Hillcrest, North Park and downtown San Diego.

The Council voted on the streetlight cameras and the automated license plate readers separately on Tuesday. Seven council members voted in favor of the cameras, with Monica Montgomery Steppe and Sean Elo-Rivera voting against the technology. Six council members voted for the license plate readers with Montgomery Steppe, Elo-Rivera and Vivian Moreno voting no.

The council’s decision authorizes the department to seek out a contract with two companies that will provide the technology — Ubiquia, a telecommunications company, for the cameras, and Flock Safety, for the license plate readers, officials said. Only after the contracts have been approved will the network be installed.

“The San Diego Police Department has put a great amount of time and effort into ensuring the City Council had the information they needed to put victims first today by approving our use of Smart Streetlights and ALPR technology,” Police Chief David Nisleit said in a statement. “SDPD will be working quickly to draft a contract and bring it back for Council approval as soon as possible so that we can put this technology to work solving crimes.”

On Tuesday, the department reiterated that — should the technology be installed — it would not be used to record sound nor is it outfitted with facial recognition technology. The cameras would be installed in public places where people have no expectation of privacy, and the department’s policy expressly forbids the technology be used for immigration enforcement or to target groups solely based on attributes such as race, religion or social views.

Dozens of people spoke out about the technology on Tuesday, with some in support, but most against the department’s proposal.

Those in favor of the network praised its potential to help solve crimes and included people whose family members had been victims of violence.

Speakers who opposed the technology said they worried the surveillance tools would invade people’s privacy and lead to overpolicing in communities of color. Many said the department was not as transparent or collaborative as they could have been while crafting the policies that will govern the use of the technologies.

“This is setting a precedent for mistrust in the council, mistrust in these emerging technologies and mistrust in the kinds of planning and design we’re going to be putting into how do we build out our city in the future,” said Lilly Irani, an associate UC San Diego professor who specializes in technology ethics and who is part of the coalition that helped craft the city’s new surveillance ordinances.

Some critics urged the council to follow the recommendation of the Privacy Advisory Board — a volunteer group charged with evaluating the city’s surveillance technologies — which voted down the initiative last month.

On Tuesday, Elo-Rivera echoed those concerns, calling the council’s decision to move forward with the project, despite the privacy board’s decision to vote against the project, “a bad look.”

“We unanimously appointed the privacy advisory board, unanimously decided those are the folks with the expertise,” he said.

Elo-Rivera added that although everyone wants to feel safe, what makes people feel safe “differs radically” from person to person.

“Until we get better at hearing what folks need in order to feel safe, and not assuming that we know what should make them feel safe, we’re never going to get to where we should be as a community in terms of safety,” he said.

This is the second time in recent years that city council members have approved a network of smart streetlights.

In 2016, council members signed off on a $30 million project that pledged to use energy-saving smart streetlights to assess traffic and parking patterns throughout the city. What the public didn’t know — and wouldn’t know for years — is that the technology came with cameras that could be accessed by police.

The resulting outcry — based on concerns about privacy and equity — led San Diego to shut down the network and fueled the creation of a surveillance ordinance that governs the use of smart streetlights and similar technologies.

Before losing access to the technology, police had used footage from the smart streetlights to investigate hundreds of cases, including 56 homicides or attempted homicides, 55 robberies or burglaries and 55 assaults involving a weapon.

The ones installed in San Ysidro helped investigators zero-in on a suspected gunman in the Nov. 6, 2019, shootings of three Church’s Chicken workers, one of whom was killed. The shooter was found guilty of murder and attempted murder and sentenced to 146 years to life in prison in November 2021.

Police officials also accessed streetlights 35 times to gather evidence against demonstrators suspected of committing crimes during protests held in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.