City to fight illegal dumping with hotspot surveillance cameras Pilot program initially to focus on southeast side

Rachel Gordon, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

San Francisco is moving to expand its surveillance camera program to catch lawbreakers, this time with the goal of going after illegal dumping and graffiti vandalism.

City authorities began using the electronic eyes a decade ago to nab red-light runners, and last year placed them in high-crime neighborhoods where drug dealing and violence were rampant. The trend of monitoring people's activities in public with surveillance cameras is expected to accelerate and feed the emerging debate over how to balance privacy rights versus public benefits.

Public works officials announced Tuesday their intention to install surveillance cameras at dumping hotspots on the city's southeast side used by contractors and haulers who want a fast and cheap way to get rid of construction debris, old oil drums, used appliances and other refuse.

"It would be naive not to consider that technology can be used in an advantageous way," Mayor Gavin Newsom said. "But we have an equal obligation to preserve and protect people's civil liberties."

Newsom said the city is moving slowly with the surveillance cameras, installing them on a pilot basis and only after residents request them.

"This is a citizen-driven initiative, not a Big Brother initiative coming out of City Hall," he said.

But Nicole Ozer, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Northern California branch, is concerned.

"The reality is," she said, "surveillance cameras are creeping into neighborhoods all over the city," she said. "And we're not talking about the grainy surveillance cameras of yesteryear. These can zoom in and see what you're wearing, who you're talking to and who you kiss goodbye. This is scary stuff."

City officials say they only will use the cameras for their intended purposes -- to catch people engaging in illegal activity. But Ozer said the city has yet to adopt enforceable guidelines to assure that the images won't be used for other purposes.

San Francisco's initiative began in 1996, with the installation of surveillance cameras at key intersections to catch motorists running red lights. Last summer, Newsom -- confronted with a rising homicide rate -- erected the first two anti-crime cameras outside a public housing project in the Western Addition that had been the scene of violence and illegal activity.

Since then, 31 more have been put up in other high-crime areas. The administration has requested that the Board of Supervisors free up $250,000 to pay for another 20 or so in the coming months, said Allen Nance, who runs the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. The mayor will seek even more funding in next year's budget.

He said preliminary results show that crime is down in the immediate vicinity of the cameras. What he couldn't say was whether the illegally activity was simply moved to another location.

The Department of Public Works, meanwhile, is eager to start a pilot project in which surveillance cameras will be installed in known areas of illegal dumping.

Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of operations for the Department of Public Works, said city work crews now haul away an average of 24 tons of refuse left on the streets and in vacant lots every day -- a problem that not only adds to urban blight but also costs taxpayers a lot of money. Officials estimate that they spend $2 million a year getting rid of discarded junk.

On Tuesday, representatives from a variety of city agencies crowded around a table at the city maintenance yard on Cesar Chavez Street to watch a demonstration of a surveillance camera operation set up at three locations in the Bayview and Hunters Point neighborhoods where illegal dumping is the worst.

Representatives from the firms CBX Technologies and Dotworkz Systems showed what their joint program was capable of -- with the use of a computer mouse, they could manipulate the cameras in the field to zoom in on a vehicle's license plate or zoom out to a building more than 400 yards away. The footage can be stored indefinitely. Authorities hope to use the footage to nab people who dump waste illegally. Eventually, the cameras could be erected around spots favored by graffiti vandals.

"I think it could be a very useful tool," Nuru said. The department has identified 25 unofficial dump sites where officials believe the cameras are needed.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who represents Bayview-Hunters Point, fought to put $150,000 in this year's budget to fund a camera program to go after illegal dumping, but now, more than halfway through the fiscal year, not a dime has been spent. The test program put in place by CBX Technologies has been done at no cost to the city. The company, of course, hopes to land the contract.

Maxwell hopes the city moves forward quickly.

"It's extremely important, especially for my district because there's so much illegal dumping," she said. As for concerns that people's privacy could be eroded, Maxwell had a different take.

"Right now the civil liberties of the people who live there are not being considered," she said. "People are having everything dumped in their neighborhoods."

E-mail Rachel Gordon at


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