Lawsuit: San Francisco Police Illegally Spied on Protesters

The complaint alleges that police illegally tapped hundreds of surveillance cameras despite a 2019 city ban.

Union Square, San Francisco, July 2019.
Union Square, San Francisco, July 2019.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses San Francisco police of illegally tapping hundreds of surveillance cameras to spy on police-brutality protesters.

The suit said that from May 31 to June 7, police tapped into real-time footage from more than 400 cameras in the Union Square area despite a 2019 city ban on the use of surveillance technology without prior approval from supervisors except in emergencies, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Use of the privately-owned network of cameras was “a tactic to keep people from speaking out,” activist and lead plaintiff Hope Williams said.

The suit, filed by civil rights groups on behalf of three activists, seeks a San Francisco Superior Court order requiring police to obey the city ban.

The case involved protests that drew thousands into the streets in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

San Francisco police referred requests for comment to the city attorney's office, which provided two letters from Police Chief Bill Scott to the Board of Supervisors addressing the issue, the Chronicle said.

Scott said looting and other crimes following early protests were “exigent circumstances" under the law that permitted accessing camera feeds without prior approval.

The department's Homeland Security Unit requested a link to the network on May 31 “to access only if the arson, violence and looting continued" but ultimately it wasn't used because the “criminal activity did not continue" in the area, Scott said.

Police subsequently “did not monitor any activity, including First Amendment activities, through the remote live access link,” he wrote.

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