Doing so violated a recently enacted city ordinance that requires the Board of Supervisors to approve any new surveillance systems for police use, according to attorneys with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Northern California chapter of the ACLU, who are representing the four activist plaintiffs.

“They reached out to the Union Square Business Improvement District (USBID) and said, ‘We want access to your cameras,’ ” said Saira Hussain, an attorney with EFF. The organization obtained email exchanges through a public records request that confirmed the arrangement.

San Francisco enacted the Acquisition of Surveillance Technology Ordinance in 2019 to specifically prevent police abuse of power, Hussain said. She called the arrangement between the USBID and SFPD “a back door deal.”

The 27-block area where the Union Square Business Improvement District has installed an elaborate surveillance system of nearly 400 cameras. A new lawsuit alleges the SFPD accessed those cameras during mass protests in early June without first obtaining permission from the Board of Supervisors. (Matthew Green/KQED)

“It really is about SFPD playing fast and loose with a city ordinance that is supposed to put a democratic check on how law enforcement is using surveillance technology.”

Police routinely requested and received live access to USBID’s camera network in 2019, seeking live surveillance of July Fourth, Pride and Super Bowl celebrations, all reportedly without board approval, according an investigation by the San Francisco Examiner.

SFPD has said officers didn’t always end up using the video feeds they sought to access during those events, but emails obtained through public records requests indicate officers did access live feeds, according to the Examiner.

Hope Williams, a San Francisco resident and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, organized and participated in a June 2 protest that began at City Hall and culminated in a sit-in in front of the Hall of Justice, in defiance of an 8 p.m. curfew that Mayor London Breed ordered for five nights in early June.

“I was out there to protest police violence against Black people,” Williams said. “We’re saying that Black lives matter and how did the police respond but with more abuse of power. It was a tactic to provoke fear and to prevent people from speaking out.”

Other plaintiffs in the case participated in a June 3 protest organized by students at Mission High School and another on June 5 that began at City Hall and headed west up Market Street toward the Castro District.

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott argued in a Aug. 5 letter to supervisors that protests involving “looting, vandalism and rioting” on May 30 created an emergency that allowed police to access cameras without board approval.

Scott followed up in response to questions from Supervisor Aaron Peskin with a Sept. 9 letter. He wrote that although SFPD’s Homeland Security Unit requested access to the camera system on May 31, criminal activity did not continue in the Union Square area, so “HSU did not monitor any activities, including first amendment activities.” Officers separately reviewed the network’s recorded footage network from May 30, Scott wrote, and that resulted in at least one arrest.

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